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Coronavirus Florida: Veterinarians, banks, car dealerships continue services in uncertain times


Andrew Wigdor   | Fort Myers News-Press

For Sterling Sigmond, a veterinarian and owner of Naples Coastal Animal Hospital, it's more important now than ever to keep the doors open.

Even if the doors to her animal hospital aren't literally open.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Naples Coastal is only allowing "curbside visits." Instead of entering the building, pet owners must park and wait for a hospital technician to retrieve animals from their car.


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Southwest Florida businesses that are staying open are learning to adapt. Banks, car dealerships, pharmacies, gas stations and others that provide necessary services are moving forward into the unknown with rigorous cautionary systems in place.

Some officials have doubled down on the need for social distancing by calling for the closure of all "nonessential businesses" in a growing list of states, such as California, New York, Illinois, Nevada, Connecticut, Ohio and Delaware. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has ordered the closure of all "non-life-sustaining businesses."

While Gov. Ron DeSantis has not yet ordered the statewide closure of nonessential businesses, veterinary services like Naples Coastal could be exempt from such a measure. In the majority of statewide orders, veterinary services were allowed to continue.

Rigorous precautions to encourage social distancing, cleanliness

Banks such as Fort Myers-based FineMark are juggling the need to provide important financial services with the safety of their clients and employees. 

"It's all challenging because it's new," said Joseph Catti, president and CEO of FineMark. "We're really trying to do our best to make sure we're keeping everybody safe, and at the same time providing the level of service that people have come to expect from us."

The bank recently bought more than 100 laptops for its employees who are working remotely, and Catti said that a "significant portion" are now working from home.

All lobbies throughout the company's 12 locations are closed except for people who make appointments. For deposits and withdrawals, clients must use bank drive-throughs until further notice. 

Clients who do make appointments are asked if they've experienced symptoms of a respiratory illness in the last 72 hours or have traveled internationally or on a cruise ship in the last 14 days.

Other measures include checking fevers of people who go into the bank buildings and holding meetings in larger rooms so that clients and associates can spread out. 

Many area car dealerships are continuing to sell but are seeing declines in revenue. 

Steven Hill, the general manager of the Germain Honda of Naples dealership, said that the facility's service business has been consistent, but sales have seen "a slight drop-off," down about 15% in the past two weeks.

While the dealership has not laid anyone off, they have adjusted all workers' schedules to 30 hours per week to keep everyone employed while also continuing to provide benefits. The dealership has also started a hiring freeze. 

"Our employees are really important to us," he said. "We'll get through this together." 

As far as precautions, the dealership has treated and disinfected the whole store, required service members to wear gloves, used protective steering wheel and seat covers in all cars and purchased a commercial disinfecting machine. Any worker who calls in sick is now required to have a doctor's OK before returning.

The dealership is also using a pickup and delivery service, in which customers can do everything over the phone or online and have cars delivered directly to their homes. 

"We're controlling the things we can control and doing our best to keep a positive attitude," Hill said. "This is going to end at some point, hopefully sooner than later."

Budge Huskey, the CEO of Premier Sotheby's International Realty, is "amazed by how generally most people are continuing."

"The people who look at real estate are continuing to look at real estate," he said. "They're continuing to write contracts."

He said that within the past week, they've had several buyers sign contracts on $5 million-plus homes, and the company has had "very few" cancellations of home closings. 

It hasn't all been business as usual, however. Some people have canceled buyer trips, some property renters have left Southwest Florida early and March sales have not been as strong as January and February.

The firm's Naples-area sales rose 90% this January over last year, and February was up 49% from last year. March so far is tracking to be in line with last March's sales, meaning that the pandemic has not caused any sort of significant disruption, Huskey said. 

"We haven't seen business drop significantly," he said. "I think people realize this is a horrible situation, but it's not indefinite."

While agents are still showing and closing deals at this time, Huskey noted that the situation is extremely fluid, with the organization making assessments of the situation "every single day."

"Our focus is on two things: First and foremost, doing everything we can to protect the safety of our customers and our team, and secondly, acknowledging that real estate is continuing and that we need to be able to accommodate and have systems in place to allow buyers and sellers to continue in the market," he said. 

Huskey said that many employees are working from home, and branch offices are currently open but staffed with just a manager and office assistant.

"We wanted to remain open but be responsible," he said. 

And the act of remaining open comes with many additional precautions so that agents and buyers don't spread the virus. 

The company has enacted a two-week pause on open houses in order to "flatten the curve" but will still be having showings by appointment, where "strict protocols will be followed." 

Measures have included agents being required to go through the homes and sanitize common surfaces, agents taking out hand towels and other objects that customers may be tempted to touch, and customers being encouraged not to touch anything in the home. 

Agents are also traveling separately from the buyers when showing homes and using disposal latex gloves when meeting with clients.

Staying open to protect 'important bond' between pets, owners

Despite necessary operating changes, Sigmond said she's actually seen an increase in clients getting their animals checked in recent days. More people are coming in for routine wellness checks due to "the fear of the unknown," she said. 

"There's such a need for them to still bring their pets in," she said. "I think right now, especially with the isolation and unknown that they're feeling, having that stability to be able to care for their dogs, cats and companion animals is huge right now."

At first, the curbside visits were just offered as an option for clients. But as the virus became more widespread, Sigmond and her team made the decision to close off the hospital building for clients to enter.  

The curbside visits include as little direct contact as possible, with the hospital using its own leashes to transfer pets into the clinic and vets discussing examinations by phone after appointments.

When Sigmond met with her team recently to ask if they were comfortable still coming into work, they came to the conclusion that it is a critically important time to continue to provide care. 

"We all care so strongly about the animals, and we know it's an important bond that we have with these pets," she said. "Especially now that these people are self-quarantining in their homes, they're seeing more illnesses and seeing the needs of their animals. So we want to be open and provide that care as long as we can."

Sigmond stressed the importance of her team being extra careful during this time. She said that if one member of the staff gets the virus, the hospital would be forced to shut down. 

Working during uncertain times isn't something Sigmond and her staff felt too unprepared for, however. When hurricanes hit Florida, Sigmond said the hospital is quick to reopen their doors to animals who need services.

"After the hurricane, we're open, day one, to be able to help people get medications for their pets," she said. "We're used to working in situations where many other businesses close down."

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Reach Andrew Wigdor at awigdor@gannett.com and on Twitter @andrew_wigdor

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