Dayton region businesses adapt to ‘new normal’

Dayton-area employers large and small are pressing on as they welcome back employees and customers back for the first time in about two months as coronavirus restrictions ease.

Other businesses never “closed,” but they face the daunting task of redefining themselves and the way they serve customers, upending traditional operations that took decades to create and refine.

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The Dayton Daily New interviewed company leaders from various industries in the region and found most were ready to press on, but remained cautious about the health concerns that still remain with the coronavirus.

Some large manufacturers like Honda and DMAX have workers back in plants and on assembly lines, albeit with new precautions and processes.

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Others, like Sinclair Community College and other colleges, are rethinking what educating students will look like this summer and in the fall.

Employers find themselves in a new landscape, where social distancing guidelines remain firmly in place and what was once a thriving economy has slowed considerably.

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‘It has humbled us’ 

Premier Health, Dayton’s largest hospital system, has been on the front line of the battle against COVID-19 from the start. Traditional medicine quickly adapted, and today, virtual visits with physicians or telemedicine are up at Premier some 2,000 percent.

Premier Chief Medical Officer Dr. Marc Belcastro said last week universal COVID-19 screening has been established, with nearly every patient visiting Premier facilities being offered a ”deep nasal” swab test, with results available in less than 24 hours, in most cases.

Patients are free to refuse the test, but the measure does provide patients and staff with some reassurance, Belcastro said.

“I think one thing this pandemic has done, it has taught us that we need to look at our preparedness as a nation in regard to the ability to ramp up quickly and manage … PPE (personal protective equipment) and testing,” Belcastro said.

“I think it has humbled us as physicians and health care providers in trying to battle something that we had some facts about, but a lot that we didn’t know,” he added. “It has also forced us to return back to just the basic science and make sure that we wrote all of our policies and all of our practices around the science of what we do.”

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There were moments of “fear” and “anxiety” in the past nine weeks, Belcastro acknowledged.

But there was also the satisfaction of a job well done in trying times.

“Even greater than the fear was the resiliency, the innovation, the creativity of our teams,” he said.

Even as telemedicine has ramped up dramatically, some patients are returning to in-person visits at Premier facilities. Special precautions remain, with staff often wearing masks and hospitals implementing more regular cleaning practices. Those who have the virus gather in one hospital unit, Belcastro said.

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Before the pandemic, Premier employed perhaps a few hundred telemedicine visits a week, a Premier spokesman said. Today, the system relies on several thousand of these visits, an increase of 2,000 percent, the spokesman said.

“The vast majority (of patients) like it,” Belcastro said. “They like the option. They feel safe.”

Premier employees who were on furlough have returned. Those who have been able to work off-site successfully have continued to do that, Belcastro said.

‘Sinclair will always be there for students’

Sinclair Community College never stopped pressing on. Adam Murka, Sinclair vice president for advancement, said the downtown Dayton college quickly shifted almost entirely to online classes in the spring semester, ending the academic year with 2,000 associate degree graduates — its largest graduating class ever.

And Sinclair has been able to navigate the past nine weeks without furloughs or layoffs, Murka said. While the future remains uncertain, the college expects a changed economy to put a premium on its educational services, he said.

While nearly all instruction has been virtual since March, many classes will continue to be virtual in the fall when the new academic year starts Aug. 24.

“We know at some point there will be more face-to-face instruction; we know that,” Murka said. “And so we’re actively building a plan between now and fall that is phased and reasonable.”

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“Sinclair will always be there for the students,” he added. “It may look a little different. We may have more virtual classes, we may have bigger classrooms that students meet in. There may be enhanced cleaning protocols.”

But Sinclair’s quality and commitment to students’ needs won’t change, he said. The commuter college typically serves older students who have jobs, and it has always had a sizable slice of classes that have been virtual.

“Online has been built into our business model for a very long time,” Murka said. “It’s built into students experiences, and it has been for a very long time.

“Students are used to texting or calling or emailing a professor or academic advisor because they’ve had to do that anyway,” he added.

A ‘gradual resumption of manufacturing’ 

Honda production employees were called back to work earlier in May. A Honda spokesman said the company isn’t ready for a detailed interview on how that process is going thus far.

“We are still just getting started with our gradual resumption of manufacturing,” said Honda spokesman Chris Abbruzzese. “Right now we are working on ramping up production and our focus must remain on our associates health and safety and making sure we are able to produce again for our customers.”

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While American auto plants are slowly reopening, many Mexican plans are still closed, especially in major industrial hubs like Tijuana. That complicates the reopening process for U.S. plants, such as a Daimler SUV assembly plant in Alabama that was forced to halt production last week.

In response to questions, Moraine’s Fuyao Glass America also responded with a brief statement.

Most of the West Stroop Road plant’s work is being performed on first shift, with “very few” workers on second and even fewer on third, Leslie O’Hara, Fuyao assistant human resources director, said in an email last week. “Customer demand is very unpredictable given the current economic conditions.”

“The auto industry’s return to work has so far been a slow and complicated process for many including us,” O’Hara said. “We are pleased that we are able to work with our employees to implement additional safety procedures to keep everyone safe.

“But the pandemic has certainly created much uncertainty for the entire auto industry as to how long this recovery process can take,” O’Hara added.

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John McKenzie is president of Winsupply Inc., a Moraine-based wholesaler who oversees a network of locally owned construction and industrial equipment businesses.

The company had to cut less than 10 percent of its workforce nationally, and it is navigating areas of slower business, McKenzie said.

“We’ve seen pockets in the country where there has been … a precipitous and alarming drop-off” in business, he said. “Most of that has to do with state regulation and with what governors are doing.”

He added: “We have also seen pockets of the country where frankly companies have grown exponentially because there is a whole middle part of the country where the tightening of the noose by the governors wasn’t quite as tight. So there was movement.”

Winsupply also has its finger on the pulse of industries that are very much are vulnerable to cyclical recessions.

“We see things like water works — the underground sewage pipes and drains that you see put in,” McKenzie said. “That’s still going pretty strong for us. When pipe goes under the ground, as we say, that’s usually means the economy is doing well. We get nervous when pipe doesn’t go under the ground.”

For its own cuts, Winsupply laid off some workers permanently. But many cuts were made “with a very keen eye on the rebound,” he said.

Winsupply continues to have just under 6,600 employees nationally. It has about 380 total employees in the Dayton area, with about 260 in Moraine, not dramatically different than the company’s pre-virus numbers.

‘The closest thing we’ve had to normal’

Smaller businesses continue to blaze their own trails. Esther and Jason Laveck have reopened 937 Salon in Kettering.

“It’s going pretty well,” Esther Laveck said in an interview. “I feel the only difference is the stylists wear the masks and the waiver forms we’re having (customers) sign.”

The waiver asks customers if they have experienced coronavirus symptoms or have been near those who have.

“We can’t guarantee a safe environment for people if we don’t ask these questions,” she said.

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Customer demand has been strong — gratifyingly so, the married couple said.

“We still have calls kind of ringing off the hook throughout the day,” she said.

“It’s the closest thing we’ve had to normal in two months,” she added.

Most employees have returned to the 1,600-square-foot salon. One employee was hesitant about returning right away, the couple said.

Coming in June

This is the first of several stories the Dayton Daily News will focus on how our community is fighting through the coronavirus pandemic.

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