Another COVID-Related Casualty

We’ll be tallying up and analyzing the consequences of COVID-19 for years to come. The pandemic has not only had a direct human toll, in terms of deaths, and hospitalizations, and illnesses, but also substantial indirect impacts — on businesses, on local economies, on social interaction, on children’s perceptions of the world, and countless other parts of our lives. This week Deer Isle felt one of those indirect impacts when the Island Nursing Home announced that it will be closing its doors in October after 40 years in business.

As has been the case with many of the human casualties, COVID was just one of the causes of the demise of the Island Nursing Home. As the article linked above indicates, the facility had been dealing for years with challenges in hiring qualified staff, attributable to a series of factors–a general shortage of qualified health care workers, its remote location on an island, “Maine winters,” and a lack of affordable housing in the area–and the COVID pandemic exacerbated the staffing shortage to the point that the facility can no longer provide care. And this isn’t the first time that the COVID virus has affected the facility, either; in 2020, there was an outbreak at the facility among both residents and staff.

The closure of the Island Nursing Home will have an impact on this community, by virtue of its position as a significant employer and because it will leave residents, and their families, with difficult decisions about where to go. Many of the residents are from this area, and the notion of moving away to unfamiliar surroundings is unsettling to them. And there will be challenges in finding places for the residents, because the staffing shortage experienced by the Island Nursing Home is also being felt by other facilities. That’s a real problem when a growing percentage of our population is aging and reaching the years when they are seriously looking at assisted living facilities.

The Dollar Table

Every morning I walk past an antiques store that sells all kinds of stuff, from ancient magazines to old-style crafts to lobster buoys. There’s always a table out front with items selling for a dollar. It’s a savvy bit of marketing by the proprietor. Passers by see the items, think that they’re only a dollar, wander over to take a look, pick the items up to examine them, and wonder whether they could find a use for, say, that tin camping percolator. Then they wander inside to see what additional treasures might be available.

The dollar table items must sell, because the items on the tabletop are ever changing. Eventually, every bit of household detritus seems to find a place on the table. It makes you realize how much stuff is found in an American house: sugar bowls, napkin holders, glassware, random plates, pots and pans, old bottles, ashtrays, and every other piece of bric a brac you can imagine.

But the undisputed lord of the dollar table is the coffee cup. The table always features at least a dozen, ranging in size from dainty to gargantuan. Single cups from what obviously once was a set, cups with branded logos, cups with lids to keep the coffee hot longer—they all testify to the U.S.A.’s love affair with java, and the dollar table allows them to be recycled to new users. It’s a small coffee-flavored undercurrent in the flow of the Stonington economy.

The Inflation Watch

The U.S. got some economic news yesterday that is designed to unsettle those of us with more than a few years under our belts. The Consumer Price Index rose 5.4 percent in June, year over year, which was higher than analyst expectations. It’s the highest year over year increase since 2008. And while economists expected some inflation—it’s hard to avoid when stimulus checks are being sent to millions and government spending has exploded—the magnitude of the increase shown by the June data was greater than the forecasts.

Inflation data can be broken down in many ways, because of course prices for all goods and services don’t rise at uniform rates. Some observers noted that the “core” inflation rate, which strips out more volatile food and energy costs, was 4.5 percent—the highest increase since November 1991. Others argue that the rates are being driven by increases in some sectors, like in the cost of used cars, that seem to be reflecting a short-term imbalance of supply and demand that will work itself out. And still others note that the energy sector, and the skyrocketing cost of fuel, will have a ripple effect that can be expected to drive further increases in other areas, like food and many consumer goods, where transportation costs are factored in to prices. Nobody quite knows what might be coming next month, or later this year.

If, like me, you lived through the ‘70s, news about growing inflation is like fingernails on a chalkboard. An inflationary cycle means your paychecks buy less, because pay increases never quite catch up to prices, and it means the money that you’ve carefully saved and invested is worth less—a result that punishes prudent and responsible behavior. Retirees and people on fixed incomes get crushed and find that their nest egg has become a lot smaller than they thought.

And we veterans of the ‘70s and early ‘80s also remember that the cure for inflation—high interest rates and tight monetary policy that consciously stifles economic growth and produces high unemployment rates—is no treat, either.

Economists will be watching to see if this price spike is transitory, or is the first sign that we are on the road to a bad long-term inflationary period. I’ll be watching, too, and hoping that our economy isn’t cycling back to the ‘70s mode.

Preventing Porch Piracy

Yesterday I went to the grocery store in Grandview to get some provisions. As I was going through the checkout line I noticed a large mustard yellow metal unit with the Amazon logo, shown in the picture above, tucked in a corner nearby.

I asked the checkout lady about it, and she explained that some people are now uncomfortable having Amazon deliver their orders directly to their houses or apartments and leaving the packages there. So, Amazon has addressed the problem by installing these metal locker units—similar to the kind you used to see at bus and train stations—at various points around town, like the Grandview Giant Eagle. Rather than having your order delivered to your home address, it gets delivered to one of these lockers, and the customer is emailed a code that allows them to open the locker unit containing their purchase and retrieve the item at their leisure.

Porch pirates are a real problem, and I’m guessing that some people also are having privacy issues with their purchases being displayed on their doorstep for all the world to see. The lockers try to address those issues. But’s kind of a strange, old-school fix, isn’t it? A big part of the idea of Amazon is convenience and getting things delivered right to your doorstep. With the locker option, you’ve got to get off your couch, go outside, drive somewhere, remember your code, and pick up your stuff.

I wonder how many people who try the locker option will ultimately think they might as well just go to that brick-and-mortar store in their town that sells the item, buy it directly, bring it home themselves, avoid the prying eyes of their neighbors and the porch piracy risk, and skip Amazon altogether?

First The Post, Now The Times

Richard continues to rack up some impressive clips. Earlier this month he had a piece published in the Washington Post about the controversy swirling around the Alamo, and now he has co-written, with Edgar Sandoval, a piece in the New York Times about the impact of SpaceX and its rocket launch site on the tiny community of Boca Chica, Texas, and towns like Brownsville that are in the vicinity. You can find a link to the Times article, entitled “A Serene Shore Resort, Except for the SpaceX ‘Ball of Fire,'” here.

Getting articles in two of the country’s leading newspapers is a terrific accomplishment. Congratulations, Richard!

And the article by Edgar and Richard in the Times raises an interesting and really difficult question: what is the price of progress for a community like Boca Chica, and how do you balance economic development and jobs creation against the impact it may have on individuals?

A Maine View On Immigration

The Working Waterfront is a local publication that covers Maine’s coastline and islands. The June 2021 issue carried an interesting story about immigration and its importance to the future of Maine’s economy, which includes both Maine-specific industries, like seafood harvesting and processing, forestry, tourism, and farming, as well industries found everywhere, like elder care and health care.

The bottom line is that Maine is desperate for workers, and is looking to immigrants to fill the void. And when Mainers talk about “immigrants,” it’s not just people who come to Maine from other countries, they’ll gladly welcome people from other parts of the U.S. who might want to come here to work, too. The Working Waterfront article calls all of these people “New Mainers,” and estimates that the state will need at least 75,000 of them over the next ten years to keep Maine’s industries economically viable. That number will allow replacement of the 65,000 workers who will be hitting retirement age–according to the Census Bureau, Maine has the oldest population, per capita, in the U.S.— and adds in some additional workers to allow for growth.

The article reports that businesses have already begun to fill the worker void with New Mainers–primarily immigrants from overseas. One seafood processing firm reports that more than half of its 400 employees are New Mainers, with many of them hailing from the Congo, Angola, Vietnam, and Cambodia, while a lobster business includes employees from the Congo, Angola, Cambodia, and El Salvador. The businesses see these New Mainers as hard workers who are eager to succeed and enjoy their share of the American Dream, and the New Mainers see the Pine Tree State as a land of opportunity.

Immigration has been a hot-button issue for a long time, with a lot of attention focused on America’s southern border. But the immigration story is a complex one, and involves a lot more than a surge of desperate people wading across the Rio Grande and how we should deal with them. The reality is that America needs immigrants, and immigrants need America, and we need to figure out a way to allow people who want to work to get into our country, legally, and fill the employment voids in places like Maine. It’s pretty clear that New Mainers will be an important part of this state’s future.

Signs Of A Stonington Summer

In seasonal towns like Stonington, many businesses close for the winter. When spring comes, residents start to look for signs of when the businesses will reopen. The businesses reopening sends the welcome message that summer, when Stonington will (we hope) welcome happy and free-spending tourists back to the town, is just around the corner.

Because all of the businesses are locally owned, each one follows its own timetable, which means the town-wide reopening is really a gradual process. Some businesses have partially reopened, some have shown activity that suggests they are getting ready, and others remain dark and shuttered, with no signs of life yet.

I like to look for clues about where things stand during my walks around town. Sometimes the signs of reopening are literal signs, like the hand-lettered notice in the door of one of the shops shown below, and sometimes it is doing the things that get a space ready for business—like painting the gray wooden deck and putting up the signs and the bright red lobster at the Stonington Ice Cream Company stand, above. When the handwritten list of flavors goes up next to the order window, completing the last step in the reopening process, we’ll know that summer is really here.

Getting Out Into The Sunlight . . . And Moonlight

With vaccines becoming more widely available to all age ranges — Ohio is getting ready to open vaccine distribution to everyone over 16 by the end of this month, for example — people are hopeful that we may be inching back toward what we remember as pre-pandemic normalcy. But I think everyone also realizes that a big part of the “getting back to normal” process depends on people, and just how comfortable they feel about returning to the acts and practices that we took for granted before March 2020.

And here’s a key question: how comfortable will people be about being in a crowd, even if they are vaccinated and/or masked up?

On Gay Street, in downtown Columbus, we’ll begin to get a sense of the appetite for the pre-pandemic activities next month. The Gay Street District will hold its first “moonlight market” on April 10, from 6-11 p.m., and its first “sunlight market” on April 18, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The markets give visitors a chance to do some shopping from street vendors who will set up along Gay Street and grab some food from the restaurants lining Gay Street. Part of the fun of the events is being in a bustling crowd while moving up and down the street. This year, organizers no doubt are wondering how many people — vendors and visitors alike — will show up.

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit everyone hard, but small businesses, street vendors, and street festivals have been particularly devastated. As we work on making our way back to “normal,” keep an eye on events like the Gay Street District markets. They are the kind of leading indicators that will tell you whether there is a pent-up demand on the part of cooped-up people to get out into the sunlight, and moonlight, or whether people are holding back because of lingering concerns that the coronavirus is still lurking out there, and that maybe it is wiser to just stay home — again.

Broken Windows And Gutter Masks

As we inch closer to reopening America and trying to get back to the way things were before the Great Shutdown, here’s a thought for hopeful business owners, bar proprietors, and restauranteurs: remember the “broken windows” theory.

As long-time readers of this blog know, “broken windows” theory holds that the physical surroundings communicate important messages to people about social order. If you see a broken window in your neighborhood, and after a few weeks it becomes apparent that no one is going to fix that window, you get the message that your neighborhood isn’t as orderly as it once was, and it causes concern about personal safety and appropriate behavior. The same message is conveyed by the appearance of graffiti on buildings, and increased litter on the streets. All suggest a breakdown in the established social compact that will make people jittery.

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented broken windows theory on a national scale. Everything changed abruptly about a year ago. Many businesses closed during the initial shutdown, and some of them never reopened. There were fewer people on the streets, and many of those who were out were obviously fearful. Neighborhoods started to look more trashy because people who might otherwise pick things up and throw them away were afraid that loose trash and debris might be vectors for transmission of the disease. And all of those bleak visual cues have a compounding, reinforcing effect.

I was in downtown Columbus yesterday, and I thought about “broken windows” theory as I passed yet another gross, discarded facial mask in a gutter in front of a business. I think those gutter masks send a pretty unmistakable message that things still aren’t back to normal or even close to normal — because if they were, the business owner or a cleaning crew obviously would pick up that mask, and any other litter on the sidewalk. If I were a business owner trying to get the wheels of commerce to really turn again, I would go on mask patrol and make sure that the area around my establishment was free of dirty masks and other negative visual cues that might cause people to refrain from entering.

There are still a lot of nervous people out there. Many of them want the world to get back to normal, but they’ve been cautioned and conditioned to avoid risk. Filthy facemasks in the gutter subconsciously communicate that the risk is still out there.

The Great Unmasking

We all remember how the COVID pandemic started, as cases climbed and state and local governments closed businesses, put restrictions on activities, and imposed mask mandates. Now we’ll see how the pandemic will end — and how long that process will take.

On Tuesday, Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued an order, to take effect next Wednesday, that will end the state’s mask mandate and allow all businesses of any type to open at 100 percent capacity. The press release from the Governor’s office, linked above, recognizes that “COVID-19 has not disappeared,” but notes that more than 5 million Texans have been vaccinated and about a million vaccinations are being administered each week, and concludes that state mandates are no longer needed and reopening Texas “100 percent” is necessary to “restore livelihoods and normalcy for Texans.” Under the Governor’s approach, Texans, and Texas businesses, will decide for themselves what practices they will follow.

Abbott’s decision has been strongly criticized. President Biden called it a “big mistake” that was the product of “Neanderthal thinking,” for example, and the CDC Director says “now is not the time to release all restrictions” because the next month or two will be “pivotal” in determining the course of the pandemic. And Texas businesses are taking different approaches to mask issues in view of the order, with some lifting restrictions and others still requiring employees and customers to mask up. Some businesses note that the Governor’s order puts them and their employees in an awkward position: if they decide to continue to require masks from customers because the CDC thinks that is the right course, they are putting their employees in a position of enforcing the requirement–and increasing the risk of confrontations with customers who refuse to do so.

One of the more interesting consequences of this pandemic has been the spectrum of risk tolerance we are seeing from businesses and our friends and colleagues. Some people have been out and about for months, traveling and dining out, others have stayed at home and are continuing to avoid any public places, and still others occupy every permutation in between. I think we’ll see a similar range of actions from state authorities, guided by the specific economic and health conditions in their states. Is an abrupt, total lifting of requirements the best course, or a gradual easing of restrictions, or keeping all mandates in place until it is crystal clear that there is no longer any risk whatsoever of a COVID resurgence? And do public health authorities really have the ability to give conclusive advice on when the pandemic, and the risks, have ended?

When you were a kid and scraped your knee in a childhood mishap, you put on a Band-Aid. After the Band-Aid did its work, you had to make a decision on how to remove it: rip it off, tug it off gradually, or do something in between. Texas’ Governor has taken the “rip it off” approach. Now we’ll see how that works out.

Entrepreneurialism In A Pandemic

Many of us are just trying to ride out the COVID pandemic. We stay hunkered down in our houses, where we’ve been for months, fighting coronaboredom and hoping that, one of these days, we’ll get back to a semblance of pre-pandemic normalcy.

Other people are different. They aren’t happy about COVID-19, obviously, but where we experience only apathy they see opportunity and are willing to creatively embrace the many challenges presented by doing business in a pandemic. If you’ve read about some of the innovative ideas that business owners have come up with–like bars that have developed ways to accomplish virtual bar crawls, or businesses that have retooled to provide supplies needed in battling the coronavirus–you know what I mean.

One of those people who is looking for opportunity, even now, is my long-time friend Chuck Pisciotta, who is seen at left in the picture above. Chuck went ahead with a plan he devised to assemble investors and buy manufacturing businesses, even after a pandemic intervened. He’s formed a new company called Valence Industrial and hopes to realize synergies and efficiencies by combining the former standalone businesses, investing in technology, and presenting customers with an integrated business model, and he’s got his eye on Valence being well-positioned when the post-pandemic rebound occurs. He recognizes that some people might wonder about the wisdom of that decision to invest in manufacturing during these unprecedented times and has written an interesting article about his thinking that you can read here.

How will it work out? No one can predict the future, but knowing Chuck I am confident that no one will be more thoughtful, or more hard working, in striving to make his business plan a successful reality. And I also know this: thank goodness for people like Chuck, who have foresight and business savvy and are willing to take risks. They are the entrepreneurs who make our economy work, and create the jobs that employ and benefit the rest of us. We could use a lot more of them.

A Neutral Place In The Bidding Wars

If, like us, you aren’t in the market for a house right now, consider yourself lucky. The real estate market is crazy right now — so crazy that bidding wars for homes are commonplace. It’s not just a seller’s market, or even a seller’s market on steroids. It’s more like a seller’s fantasyland where any imaginable price or egregiously unreasonable condition can be put on a house and some desperate soul will accept it just to get their foot in the door. If you know anyone trying to buy a house right now, you’ve heard ridiculous stories of some listings getting more than 30 offers and selling for prices more than a third above the asking price.

This CNBC article sketches out some of the macroeconomic indicators at play. The number of houses listed for sale has fallen to a record low. More than half of all prospective home buyers are facing bidding wars for the house of their choice, and the primary reason people who are in the market for a new house haven’t bought a home already is that they’ve been repeatedly outbid. More than half of new homes offered for sale are in contract in less than two weeks.

And here’s another sign of a superheated real estate market: a Google search for bidding wars will call up multiple website pieces advising on tips and strategies on how to win the inevitable bidding wars, like “11 Tips To Win A Bidding War On A House” or “Best Strategies To Win A Bidding War.” What are some of the strategies? Stay on top of the market in your target area and go see new listings the minute they appear. Pay cash if you can, or be pre-approved for financing, so you aren’t requesting financing contingencies. Offer more — sometimes far more — than the asking price. Agree to quick closings. And if it’s a house you really, really like, be prepared to waive the home inspection contingency, take the place as is, and hope that such a decision made in a crazy market doesn’t come back to bite you when you discover a new roof is needed immediately. Anybody who has bought a house knows just how risky that last strategy can be.

Those of us who are in the Switzerland position in the bidding wars — that is, neither buying nor selling right now — can view all of this with academic interest, but if you are a first-time home buyer this craziness has to be incredibly frustrating. Those of us who have homes can hope that the superheated market continues until we sell, but unless you’re moving into an apartment or an old age home, you’ll be a happy seller on one hand and a frustrated potential buyer on the other. I’d rather see things get back to normal.

Home Prices In The Heartland

The coronavirus pandemic has had a very unequal financial impact on people. Those who have been laid off, or been forced to close their businesses altogether, because of COVID-19 shutdown orders have been devastated. Many white-collar workers who can do their jobs remotely, on the other hand, are looking back on 2020 as a year where their financial situations surprisingly improved. They didn’t spend as much on discretionary items such as travel, dining out, and trips to the corner tavern, paid off some or all of their credit card bills, and saw their 401(k) accounts enjoy a solid year in the stock market.

Another area of unequal impact is on housing and real estate prices. House prices are up nationally, and the biggest increases are concentrated in the heartland — in the Midwest, the states of the Great Plains, and the Southwest and Mountain West. Cities like Cleveland, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Boise, and Kansas City have seen 10 percent jumps in house prices over the last year. And the rate of increase in house prices in those markets seems to be escalating.

Analysts attribute the jump to people fleeing the crowded coasts for middle America, where living is a bit less concentrated and house prices are a lot more reasonable. You’re going to get a lot more housing bang for your buck away from the coastal cities. And with remote work becoming the “new normal” for many people — a trend that isn’t likely to change even when vaccines become widespread — people are seeing new possibilities and opportunities in living in flyover country. Salaries are going to go a lot farther in establishing a really nice lifestyle in a place like Kansas City than they would in, say, San Francisco.

The American economy is a huge, sprawling, complicated thing, and expert predictions about it are often dead wrong. One thing is clear, however: unequal economic impacts aren’t good for our society, or sustainable long term. It’s interesting that some people have seen their financial situations improve, and that big-picture demographic changes seem to be underway, but we can’t forget those people who have been directly harmed by shutdown orders. The vaccine rollout, and the lifting of restrictions on bars, restaurants, sporting events, and live music performances, can’t happen soon enough.

The Random Restaurant Tour — XL

This summer we have been trying to support all of the local businesses around Stonington — especially restaurants, which really need the traffic to stay in business and which face unique challenges in achieving appropriate social distancing and sanitation in the coronavirus era. Every week, we’ve tried to go to at least one local-area restaurant for a hearty meal and a very generous tip for our server. This week, as our stay in Stonington is coming to a close, we’re looking to complete a final circuit of all of our summer options.

Last night we went to the Fin & Fern, which has become a mainstay this summer. It’s located next to the mailboat dock and features a really good and diverse menu. It also made the decision to open when a lot of restaurants were still debating their options and resolutely stayed the course all summer, offering fine, and safely served, meals. I’ve become very fond indeed of the F&F short rib and mashed potatoes, and Kish swears they have an amazing Caesar salad. (I wouldn’t know, because when it comes to salads, I came to bury Caesar, not to praise him.)

Last night, though, I went for the lobster stew, shown above, and a bacon cheeseburger with fries. The lobster stew was a creamy treat, served piping hot with lots of big chunks of lobster and accompanied (of course!) by oyster crackers. And the cheeseburger was a grilled-to-perfection medium rare, with thick pieces of smoked bacon and just the right amount of fries. It was a fine way to bid the Fin & Fern adieu until next year.

We’re all going to try to forget 2020, and for good reason. But there are some parts of the year that I will remember, and the restaurants that opened up and offered patrons a dash of normalcy amidst the craziness will be one of them. Thanks to the Fin & Fern for some great food and a friendly atmosphere when we really needed it the most.

A Summer Like No Other

Today is, officially, the last full day of summer.  Tomorrow morning at 9:30 or so the autumnal equinox arrives.  In Stonington, it feels like the northern hemisphere has been moving speedily away from the sun for some time now.  As I write this the temperature outside is a bracing 39 degrees, and you can definitely get a heady whiff of winter in the sharp breeze.

It’s been a unique summer in Stonington, as it has been across the country.  The statue of the stonecutter downtown has been masked up for months, and so were most of the people around town.  Here, like everywhere else, things that used to be strange and different have become second nature — like donning a mask before entering a building, working remotely with your office in a laptop, or automatically veering off to the other side of the street to keep that social distance from approaching pedestrians.   

Some businesses opened, some didn’t, and some found new ways to operate while scrupulously obeying the coronavirus rules.  The restaurants that opened seemed to start slow but gather momentum, and our guess is that grateful patrons will feel a long-term loyalty to the places that figured out a way to safely serve food to customers who just had to get out of their houses during a pandemic.  The shops in town all stayed open through the season and seemed to do a reasonably good trade, and while the Opera House was closed in 2020 it decided to offer drive-in movies on a big screen set up at the old ballfield and experienced a string of sell-outs.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see the summer drive-ins become a permanent part of the Stonington arts calendar.

Of course, it wasn’t like a normal summer, and a lot of the things that we enjoyed in the past — like live musical performances at some of the venues around town, and the end of summer Labor Day party in our neighborhood — just didn’t happen this year, for totally understandable reasons.  But with summer now ending, the key point seems to be that the town and its businesses made it through, and will still be here next year.  That’s not true elsewhere, as thousands of American restaurants and shops and other small businesses closed their doors for good.  We’re grateful that our favorite places dodged that bullet.

The summer of 2020 truly has been a summer like no other.  We’re not sorry to see it ending, but it’s safe to say we won’t forget it.