COOLIDGE — Within the span of just over two months, COVID-19 transformed the way car dealers, educational institutions, restaurants, grocery stores and other organizations operate.
From employees working remotely to virtual classes, efforts to stem the coronavirus pandemic have precipitated a collective shift in the day-to-day functions of nearly every industry and institution.
Some of those changes may be here to stay, according to several Pinal County business and organizational leaders who spoke during Pinal Partnership’s virtual breakfast on May 27.
At Central Arizona College, services that have been put in place as a response to the pandemic like virtual advising and tutoring will likely continue long after the pandemic has been brought under control.
“Our business model will never go back to the way it was before,” CAC President Jackie Elliott said. “We will not go back to business as usual. Our students will need to be able to choose if they want to interact with us face-to-face or virtual.”
The effects of COVID-19 will likely continue to be felt into the fall semester for CAC students and staff as well.
When campuses reopen in the fall, CAC will be installing signage about maintaining 6-foot distances and proper hand washing. The college will increase the number of sanitation stations on campus as well.
In addition, class sizes will be greatly reduced and students living on campus will be provided with single-occupancy rooms at no additional charge.
Another likely change may be that fall sports games will not feature spectators, Elliott said.
Despite the ongoing changes, students and staff have managed to be highly adaptable to remote learning, she said, citing that CAC was somewhat lucky to be on spring break as school closures and the stay-at-home orders began to take effect in March.
To prepare to take all classes virtual midway through the semester, the community college extended the break for another week — buying instructors time to shift gears.
While students quickly adapted to the virtual format, Elliott noted that continuing education in an online space required some ingenuity on the part of faculty and staff.
That was especially the case in the college’s massage therapy program, which asked students to record themselves giving massages to family members so they could be evaluated on their skills.
“We were forced out of our comfort zone, but in the long run our main goal was to continue learning for our students,” Elliott said.
For outdoor recreation areas like Boyce Thompson Arboretum near Superior, adjustments made during the COVID-19 crisis like telecommuting may continue beyond the pandemic, Executive Director Lynne Nemeth said.
Down the road, park employees who are currently working from home may continue to do so a few days a week to help reduce pollution and cut down on commutes, she said.
The pandemic has also potentially paved the way for more flexible work schedules, she noted. With the possibility of social distancing continuing until a vaccine or better treatment for the coronavirus becomes readily available, the arboretum is also re-examining the structure of popular services like tours and gift shops to better optimize for distancing practices.
To encourage social distancing at the arboretum, activities requiring visitors to congregate together in groups, including tours and specialty walks, have been canceled.
According to Nemeth, the arboretum saw a dip in revenue as a result of the cancellations.
But the arboretum is not the only organization that is closely monitoring the impact of the coronavirus.
The continuation of some changes beyond the pandemic is also an option that Global Water Resources is exploring when it comes to remote work for call-center employees, said CEO Ron Fleming.
Since moving to a work-from-home platform, call-center metrics have improved, he noted.
“It does make us stop and think, there are past norms that we are proving can be improved,” he said.
Global Water also implemented a social distancing action plan early in the pandemic, even prior to Gov. Doug Ducey declaring a state of emergency across Arizona, Fleming said.
Actions the company took to promote the safety of customers and staff included closing all walk-in customer service locations, halting in-person meetings and transitioning many employees to remote work.
Recognizing that many have been impacted by the economic repercussions of COVID-19, Global Water has also taken measures to support customers that may be struggling, Fleming said. They include expanding the company’s Low Income Relief Tariff to aid customers struggling to pay their bills and voluntarily halting late fees and disconnects.
Implementing contactless service to limit the chances for customers or employees to contract COVID-19 also continues to be a priority in many industries, such as restaurants, grocery stores and dealerships.
Minimizing person-to-person contact was one of the reasons Garrett Motors implemented some adjustments when it came to touch-free service on vehicles.
“We’ll clean the car inside and out, we’ll sanitize your keys, put them in a bag — you can drop off (your car) and pick up and you’ll never even see us,” said Jim Garrett, owner of Garrett Motors.
The pandemic, he noted, has not had a dramatic impact on vehicle sales, with sales remaining relatively steady throughout the months of March and April.
Despite the challenges that COVID-19 presents for businesses and the economy, panelists indicated that the pandemic has presented opportunities to find new avenues to engage customers and community members.
To connect with individuals that may be unable to visit during the pandemic, the arboretum increased its online presence — offering virtual talks, tours and webinars about the site. The park’s most recent webinar, Nemeth said, was attended by about 500 participants.
Maintaining those virtual services will continue to be among the offerings the arboretum hopes to provide going forward.
Virtual services have also proven to be a critical business avenue for car dealerships, with Garrett Motors installing greater programing to make purchasing a vehicle online easier.
“We were moving in that direction and (COVID-19) helped us move faster,” Garrett said.