Banking in the Time of Coronavirus

By Laurie Stewart

When I took the stage at the ABA Annual Convention in my hometown of Seattle last fall as your newly elected American Bankers Association chair, I used my speech to remind the assembled bankers of the imperative of change—keeping up with rapid changes in technology, finding and retaining top talent and protecting our banks in a time of fast-moving cyber threats. “There’s plenty to keep us up at night,” I said.

Is there ever.

I originally planned to write this column on a different topic, but just a few weeks before this magazine’s press date, the coronavirus pandemic arrived on American soil—establishing a beachhead right in my home state.
Seattle was one of the first cities where Americans got to know terms like “social distancing” and “self-quarantine.” To help stop transmission, many neighbors stayed at home. Restaurants and stores closed; gatherings of more than 50, then more than 10, people ceased; employees worked from home when they could. Local economic activity—the lifeblood of any bank—ground to a snail’s pace.

As the pandemic spread in the Puget Sound region, and then through the country, banks like mine swung into action. Dusty pandemic contingency plans were quickly reviewed, updated and put into motion.

At Sound Community Bank, we designed a customized loan program to help our clients who were affected by COVID-19, who had lost a job or who could not work because of quarantines. And through our network of interactive teller machines, we could continue to deliver personal banking services to clients even if they are practicing social distancing.

My peers in Seattle and nationwide stepped up too, with loan forbearance, restructurings, fee waivers, emergency loans—and of course, extra support for our frontline team members. Not far from my bank’s headquarters, WaFd Bank offered interest-free 90-day lines of credit to affected businesses. Customers Bank in Pennsylvania committed $500 million in Paycheck Protection Program lending for COVID-19 relief. In Oklahoma, Citizens Bank of Edmond CEO Jill Castilla tweeted her personal cell phone for customers to discuss their needs. Bank of America committed $100 million to increase medical response capacity, address food insecurity, increase access to learning as a result of school closures, and meet other community needs. This is just a small sampling of all that banks are doing.

Through it all, ABA stood up for all of us in the industry. ABA staff are in constant contact with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials, communicating need-to-know information for members. At aba.com/coronavirus, you can find a vast array of information on industry practices, regulatory guidance, FAQs and situation updates—as well as webinars, a coronavirus communications toolkit and much more.
And ABA is telling the story of how banks responded. At aba.com/CoronavirusResponse, you may find examples of what I’ve already mentioned above from banks of all sizes and in all corners of America. These anecdotes combine to tell a powerful story to policymakers, the media and the general public about banks’ community commitment.

“There’s plenty to keep us up at night,” I said in my ABA Convention remarks. But then I continued: “By working together on solutions, by thinking big and by persisting, we can tackle them all.”

I believe that now more than ever.

As we fight back against this global pandemic, America’s banks are in the corner of our customers, business clients, employees and communities.

Together, we’ll make it safely through.

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About Author

Laurie Stewart

Laurie Stewart, president and CEO of Sound Community Bank in Seattle, is the 2019-20 chair of the American Bankers Association.