By Monica C. MeinertIt’s staggering to think about just how much the 2019 novel coronavirus, COVID-19, changed the world in just a few short weeks.
When we rang in the new decade on January 1, no one could have predicted that barely three months later, major league sports teams would be suspending entire seasons, Broadway theaters would be dark, colleges would be closing down and markets would be in turmoil—all because of something completely invisible to the eye, yet profoundly harmful to the most vulnerable in society.
As we all adjusted to the “new normal” of life in the time of the coronavirus pandemic, the theme was “we’re all in this together,” says the University of Maryland’s David Marcozzi, a medical doctor with expertise in public health and epidemiology during a recent ABA member webinar. Stopping the spread of the virus will take everyone—businesses and individuals—working together. “We can all be virus fighters. We need to embrace a different construct for how we live and how we maintain our own hygiene.”
Keep calm and wash your hands
First, there are the basics: wash your hands, cover your cough, disinfect surfaces frequently and stay at home if you feel sick. Then there are the more advanced measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization to mitigate the effects of the pandemic and slow the spread of infection—things like limiting nonessential travel and group gatherings that have in recent days led to the closures of bars, restaurants gyms and other establishments. These critical, community-based interventions can have the effect of “dampening” or “flattening” the curve—in other words, slowing the rate at which the infection spreads from person to person—Marcozzi says.
History provides an illustrative example. During the 1918 flu pandemic, the city of Philadelphia held a parade to help bolster morale and support the war effort during World War I. Citizens flocked to the streets in close proximity to one another. The result, of course: “their mortality and caseload went up significantly,” says Marcozzi.
Meanwhile, in St. Louis, public health director Max Starkloff immediately took action to put doctors on high alert and closed businesses, schools and churches to slow the spread. It worked—a 2007 analysis of the pandemic showed that St. Louis experienced a death rate that was one-eighth of that experienced by Philadelphia, due in large part by the concentrated social distancing efforts.
Immediately after the virus began to spread in the U.S., many employers—including banks—began shifting employees to teleworking arrangements. But bank branches remained open, and bankers continue to serve their customers. Many are encouraging customers take advantage of digital banking services. Some shifted to operating branches as drive-through only.
For branches that were still seeing foot traffic, “the key is cleaning the right areas,” and cleaning them often, Marcozzi says. This includes “any high-touch areas, any of your keyboards or anything that you touch, your phones. Those are all areas that need to make sure you’re thinking about with regard to how you could be exposed.”
The ‘new normal’ for America’s banks
In addition to challenging Americans from a health perspective, COVID-19 is also challenging the U.S. economy in unprecedented ways. But there is good news. “Our financial sector is in really good shape heading into this pandemic,” says Accenture Security’s Valerie Abend, a former Treasury official who oversaw a 2007 pandemic planning exercise. “We have a lot that we can stand on . . . to survive this as a sector.”
As banks work to meet these challenges, Abend offers several suggestions for financial institutions facing a pandemic situation.
1. Review the guidance.
Like banks, the regulatory agencies have been singularly focused on the coronavirus in recent days. The Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council recently updated its guidance for banks on business continuity planning in the face of a pandemic, and the agencies have subsequently issued additional guidance on serving customers and ensuring daily operations during this time.
If banks have questions or need to adjust operations to respond to the coronavirus, Abend recommends that they keep examiners informed. As for how best to communicate? “I think ‘early and often’ is very good advice.”
“Communication is obviously an incredibly important part of all this,” Abend adds. Fortunately, there are many different options available for banks to communicate with customers: from physical signage outside the branch to text messages to Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, banks have a range of options for disseminating important information. The timing of these communications is crucial.
“Today, there’s a lot higher expectations from your stakeholders—from your customers and your employees—around communication and transparency in a moment-by-moment basis,” Abend says. For banks, it’s all about “establish[ing]that higher level of transparency to meet those expectations.”
Banks should also communicate among themselves about the steps they’re taking to address the pandemic at their own institutions. Abend encourages banks to share their pandemic response plans with neighboring institutions.
Finally, banks should keep their third party providers apprised of any changes to their operating status. “Third parties are not just vendors, but really important components [of]your supply chain,” she says. “If you have a situation where you’re going to backup sites, or you’re going to relocate different branches . . . it’s really important that you have strong communications.”
4. Reach out to important local stakeholders.
Other important contacts to make include local stakeholders like government and health officials, emergency management services and utilities providers. “Have conversations in your local markets to make sure that they understand how important it is that you keep the lights on for your institutions,” Abend says.
In pandemic situations, local and state governments have the authority to make decisions about closing buildings, events and even roads, she adds. That’s why it’s critical to maintain what the FFIEC guidance refers to as “triggering events,” that would require bank management to implement its response plans based on the alert status. ABA SVP Paul Benda recommends having a clear, defendable process in place outlining the circumstances that could necessitate a branch closure. “Having something you can tie back to a government action is always helpful,” he says.
5. Review your succession plan.
In a pandemic situation, banks may also see absenteeism rates rise and must ensure that critical functions can be transferred to the appropriate person. “You should plan for about [a]40 percent” absenteeism rate, Abend advises. Attention should be placed on cross-training appropriate employees and communicating clearly if a situation arises where roles need to shift. “It’s important that you not only say what the succession plan is, but that the people in the secondary and tertiary roles actually know what their jobs are for those critical functions.”
6. Be aware of cyber threats.
Unfortunately, in this climate of fear and uncertainty, criminals are taking full advantage of the opportunity to perpetrate fraud scams. Already, the banking agencies have been alerted to several scams related to the coronavirus situation—one scam even prompted the FDIC to respond with a statement assuring consumers that insured depository institutions remain the safest place for consumers to hold their funds.
Abend notes that criminals are starting to put up webpages with interactive COVID-19 maps as “watering holes” that can be used to lure in unsuspecting individuals browsing on the internet and then distribute credential-stealing malware. Along with that, spear-phishing attacks continue to prey on fears about the virus, while business email compromise scams are ramping up as most employees are now working from home. “Stay vigilant,” Abend advises banks. “Do not relieve your VPN. Do not relieve your endpoint protections. That is exactly what the bad guys are looking for.”