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One building, 16 businesses, each with its own way to work during coronavirus pandemic

  • Robert Meyers, owner of Three Tomatoes, right, waves to Jessica Giordani, co-owner of Scratch, as he passes by on his way to the restaurant in Lebanon, N.H., Wednesday, May 6, 2020. The businesses both occupy space in the same downtown building. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Karen Zook, co-owner of Scratch, fills a curbside pickup order for a customer at the store in Lebanon, N.H., Wednesday, May 6, 2020. Zook and her fellow co-owners are planning on opening the physical store back up after restrictions have been lifted, but with access and service temporarily limited to a small space inside the front door where employees can show products customers ask for, or have viewed online. “Even long-term temporary is still temporary,” said Zook, who looks forward to the store returning to a space where customers can linger, work and share ideas. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Naomi Hartov, left, and her husband Alex Hartov, of Enfield, eat a take-out lunch from Three Tomatoes Trattoria in Lebanon, N.H., Wednesday, May 6, 2020. The restaurant is serving take-out only until opening for seating on May 18. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 5/9/2020 8:58:38 PM
Modified: 5/9/2020 8:58:33 PM

LEBANON — One Court Street has 16 tenants. Each one is affected by COVID-19.

The office building on the corner of the Lebanon Mall across from Colburn Park is a microcosm of the business world: There’s a restaurant, a retail store, professional offices, social agencies and nonprofits filling its three floors. More than four dozen people show up there for work every day.

Or did. Since the coronavirus pandemic shut down non-essential businesses in the middle of March, each of the tenants of One Court Street has had to rethink how it operates, how and where employees can work, and what their business will look like once the current crisis passes.

“I do think there will be some people who have an ‘aha!’ moment and they set up a nice workspace at home,” said Clifton Below, general partner in building owner One Court Street Associates and a Lebanon city councilor. “On the other hand, there are other people who are missing separating work and home life because things are blurring.”

Although people who work at One Court Street are still coming and going into their offices, there is a noticeable hush in the building these days as many of the tenants are staying away or have radically adjusted their work schedule or business.

The mainstay restaurant, Three Tomatoes Trattoria, which has occupied the ground floor for 30 years, hasn’t been able to seat diners but is offering takeout lunch and dinner meals seven days a week. Fiber arts store Scratch can’t have walk-in customers but is continuing to sell its yarns online. The staff of Granite United Way are working from home. Dental practice Osofsky & Sabatelle is open on a two-day-a-week schedule for emergency appointments only. Albert Cirone, a former judge and longtime Lebanon trust and estate attorney, said he goes into his office there “once or twice a week to pick up mail or files” but otherwise works at home.

Three Tomatoes owner Robert Meyers said that to make up for lost sit-down dining he has added takeout lunches on the weekend and launched a $500 “community gift card” — the proceeds from which go to furloughed employees — that entitle customers to a 25% discount at the restaurant “forever.” He plans to offer outdoor seating starting May 18, as Lebanon city officials have expanded the area around the Lebanon Mall that can be used for dining through the summer.

Without the normal lunch and dinner crowd in downtown Lebanon, Three Tomatoes, like restaurants everywhere, is experiencing a big drop in business, although Meyers said he’s trying to keep his kitchen busy — and employed — by preparing hundreds of meals for “front-line workers” at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Alice Peck Day and the city fire and police departments paid for through $20,000 in donations from customers and the public.

Meyers and his employees don’t have the option of working remotely, but some tenants at One Court Street are opting to work from home, even if their business at first would not seem like a natural candidate.

Jennifer Sielicki teaches Alexander Technique, a method of healthy postural habits, in her office on the second floor. The lessons, at least initially, usually involve “manual confirmation to the hands-on work” as the client learns the proper techniques. But Sielicki said she “hasn’t gone into the office since COVID” and has been meeting with her clients over Zoom, Facetime and other videoconference platforms from her Lebanon home.

“It’s not ideal for beginners,” Sielicki said, but she’s now done enough videoconference sessions that she could see it working with about a third of her clients who do not require more than “verbal cues.”

Researchers are already beginning to study what a post-COVID-19 workscape may look like as more people discover — or are told by their employer — that they can work remotely from home. Answers to those questions hold profound implications for everything from commercial real estate to transportation systems.

Jonathan Slason, director of future mobility planning at Resource Systems Group in Burlington and a transportation consultant, said the most recent U.S. Census data shows about 7% of Vermont’s 436,700-strong workforce do their jobs from home.

But a recent “post-COVID-19 work-from-home analysis” he conducted as part of a presentation with UVM’s Sustainable Transportation Vermont program estimates that anywhere from 9% to 37% of the state’s overall workforce “could be eligible to work remotely,” depending on the industry sector. Perhaps not surprisingly, professions like real estate, finance, insurance and “information” come out on upper reaches of the range while those in farming, construction and forestry score in the lower bound.

“Certain industries are obviously more prone than others” in being able to shift to working remotely, he said. But Slason thinks even farms — on which he worked as a business manager for nearly three years before returning to RSG — could shift 25% or more of positions in sales, accounting and logistics to work remotely.

Just as Slason’s theory predicts, wealth management firm American Trust Investment Advisors, a tenant at One Court Street going back to the early 1990s, is having people go into the office “as needed on a rotational basis,” chief investment officer Carey Callaghan said.

“It’s a business you can pretty much do from anywhere,” he said. His firm used the offices principally as a place to meet with clients and for compliance and record-keeping, although much of the communication with clients already occurs over the phone and email.

For Scratch, the fiber store, the storefront closed to the public on March 19, but its online sales have been thriving, according to co-owners Jessica Giordani and Karen Zook.

The store has been growing its e-commerce business since it opened, selling yarns to knitters around the country. During coronavirus restrictions, online customers have been the sole source of income; the difference now is that local clients are also shopping through Scratch’s online store.

“We were in a position where we could lock our doors and our customers have had no problem at all with adapting to that,” Giordani said. “They are shopping online.”

Scratch has migrated its in-store “craft nights” where knitters show up to knit and socialize, onto twice-weekly three-hour Zoom teleconferences, which Giordani and Zook run from the store. They order a pizza and wine from Three Tomatoes next door and join with a dozen other knitters on the call.

Zook, who is also on the City Council, said Zoom has had the knock-on effect of expanding Scratch’s reach as local knitters have been pulling in family members from Texas, North Carolina and Brooklyn to join the teleconference.

“It’s very similar to what we do in the store,” Zook explained about the Zoom craft nights. “People are knitting, crocheting, embroidering, going, ‘Look what I finished!’ ” she said.

Along with knitting support and the “knitting academy” classes that Scratch has introduced, Zook foresees Zoom becoming an ongoing component of the store’s enterprise, especially when it comes to working through knotty knitting problems.

“We would sit on couches together when giving support. Now our customers call us on Zoom and we offer support remotely,” she said.

Psychologist Moira Ripley, who has had her office at One Court Street for more than 10 years, has also begun seeing her clients over a videoconferencing platform. And Ripley acknowledges she could readily do that from her home in Hartland, except she’s still holding to her regular schedule and commuting three days a week into Lebanon.

“I think it’s reassuring to my patients for them seeing me from the same place,” Ripley explained. “I have a couple of patients who I think actually prefer (videoconferencing) interestingly, which if they’d like to continue that way it’s fine.”

The downside, Ripley said, is that she misses the “spontaneity” of being able to socialize when getting a coffee at Lucky’s Coffee Garage or eating at Three Tomatoes.

“You can’t really be spontaneous at a time like this,” she said.

Reach John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.




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