December 2, 2021

A new chapter?

Local leaders share their pandemic experiences, and what may need to happen to get back to normal

Colin Spencer/staff reporter

Aaron Baier, executive director of Access to Independence, moved his office to a ground-floor conference room so he could be closer to those colleagues who are still working in the office during the coronavirus pandemic. When the day comes, he might well move back upstairs, but don’t expect to see the masks and social distancing go away, for a while.

You aren’t alone if you’ve missed seeing co-workers or guests enter into your workplace this year because of COVID-19 restrictions.

Aaron Baier, the executive director of Access to Independence of Cortland County Inc., changed where he worked in the Cortland office because of it. Having worked in his secluded office on the second floor, Baier moved downstairs to an empty conference room to have more interactions with the few staff who would work in the office.

“The big thing I missed around here was seeing staff, seeing customers coming in, doing the social events and just seeing people,” he said.

The coronavirus pandemic has created new challenges for business and organization leaders. How do they keep people socially distanced? How do they make a profit doing that? How do they continue the mission using new techniques and new technologies?

The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the ways people in Cortland work, play and interact.

One vaccine is here and being distributed, and more are on the way. They’ll be distributed, and as people gain immunity, maybe things will return to normal. At least, that’s what many people hope.

But maybe they won’t. Perhaps the pandemic has changed what normal will be.

RESTAURANTS: NEED FOR FEDERAL RELIEF

Shutting down indoor dining and switching over to takeout and delivery were two of the hardest changes restaurants had to make during the pandemic, said Tammy Timmerman, the president of the Cortland County Restaurant and Tavern Association.

“When shutdown happened in March, restaurants were given just 48 hours to go to take out from indoor dining,” she said. Nine months later, as COVID-19 rages stronger than ever, people hesitate to return to eat inside restaurants, she said.

Timmerman feared another quick change in restaurant operations, similar to the shutdown in March.

”We don’t want people to be unemployed the week before Christmas,” she said. “Many have families to support. A shutdown is just going to devastate them.”

Timmerman though is still uncertain if 2021 will be any better for the restaurant industry as lost income may be too difficult to make up without federal aid.

That is why she is advocating that Congress passes the Restaurants Revitalization Fund, which would provide $120 billion in relief funding to restaurants and bars.

Action, though, may not happen before the end of the year because it is sitting in the House of Representatives, where it has been since June.

While not the same in terms of financial help, Timmerman suggested people buy gift cards to local restaurants to help support them.

“We kind of look forward to 2021 and hope for a better year,” she said.

With a COVID vaccine being distributed, first to healthcare workers and providers, Timmerman hopes people have the confidence in it to get it and return to a pre-pandemic life sometime in 2021.

If it does, she’s going to go celebrate with others.

“I’m going to sit at a bar and order a drink without having to order food with it,” she said.

SCHOOLS: GRATITUDE

Even with all of the challenges 2020 has presented, McGraw Superintendent Melinda McCool said that the district celebrates each day.

“Before, during and after the pandemic, it’s what we do,” she said.

Parents faced a burden when schools shifted to remote learning at the beginning of the pandemic but McGraw was able to offer in-person learning for the majority of the students five days a week for the 2020-21 school year, she said.

If 2021 were to return to normal, McCool said she would enjoy the extra time that was lost during the pandemic to planning and reorganizing the district’s everyday operations.

More than anything, she would enjoy attending and having the school host large events, such as sports and graduation.

Getting there, though, will all depend on orders from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office and any guidelines from health officials.

While technology and new teaching techniques has allowed classes to carry on throughout the pandemic, McCool said there may not be many new teaching changes in the district once the pandemic is over.

BUSINESSES: ‘DETERMINED, RESILIENT’

Similar to restaurants closing, businesses as a whole face hardships when they had to close or shift operations because of the pandemic in March, said Garry VanGorder, executive director of the Cortland County Business Development Corp.

“I think the state did the best it could initially as it tried to quash the spread of the virus, but I can tell you that the uneven and seemingly arbitrary roll out of pandemic-related restrictions across all of the business sectors also caused a great deal of grief,” he said.

He wasn’t able to say what the damage was, or if businesses closed because of the pandemic.

Like others, he hopes the development and distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine eases the pain, but for now, the pandemic continues.

“We need to remain vigilant with respect to our approach to public health,” he said.

He has faith in the business owners and residents that Cortland will come back strong.

“Our local businesses are run by people who are smart, resilient, and determined, and we have an incredibly loyal community to support them,” he said. “We also need people to go back to work. We have job openings everywhere.”

MENTAL HEALTH: ISOLATION, ANXIETY

The hardest part for Baier this year was staying connected with his colleagues and others because most of his staff worked from home and most Access to Independence’s events had to be canceled.

Moreso, the pandemic brought on great problems with isolation for people who struggle with depression or anxiety.

For people who struggled with those, meeting in-person with friends or family was a helpful way to deal with and talk about their issues, he said. Losing that support because of the pandemic could be devastating.

“Those mental health issues hit people really hard this year,” he said.

Toward September and October, as the pandemic reached its half-year marker, many people started to feel burnt out and depressed, Baier said.

Additionally the pandemic meant canceling many of the events the organization holds, such as picnics and 5K runs.

Baier is hopeful for the effectiveness of the vaccine, though it poses issues. The Pfizer vaccine could be ineffective for people with autoimmune disorders like multiple sclerosis. That means current COVID guidelines may continue.

“We don’t see the mask wearing, social distancing ending anytime soon for us,” he said.