Banks are contemplating how to manage the latest COVID curveball.

How Banks Are Responding to the Latest COVID Challenges

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Just as the nation's business owners were rounding the COVID corner — as evidenced by the removal of face mask mandates and social distancing restrictions — the emergence of the Delta variant has some of the nation's largest employers going back to the drawing board.

A few household-name companies reinstituting enhanced safety measures include Apple, Home Depot, Kroger, McDonald's, Publix, Target, Wegmans and Walmart, the U.S.' single largest employer. Approximately 1.5 million people in the United States work for the Arkansas-based big box retail giant.

But instead of requiring their customers to mask up, many are putting the onus on staff.
It raises the question: Should financial institutions follow suit? And how will new measures affect the customer relationship?

New CDC guidance on mask use
Announcements of corporate response come on the heels of revised guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In May the CDC stated that anyone who was fully vaccinated should feel free to go maskless because the vaccine builds up the body's antibodies to protect itself from experiencing classic COVID symptoms. That said, due to a rise in infections, specifically linked to the highly-contagious Delta variant, the coronavirus is continuing its rampage in certain vulnerable communities.

"Fully vaccinated people with symptomatic breakthrough infections can transmit the virus to others."

According to the CDC, although breakthrough infections happen much less often than infections in unvaccinated people, individuals infected with the Delta variant, including fully vaccinated people with symptomatic breakthrough infections, can transmit it to others. Furthermore, according to the most recent figures available as of this writing, only roughly 50% of the residents in the U.S. have received the required number of shots to achieve the maximum level of immunity (only one dose is necessary for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine). That still leaves over 165 million Americans who aren't fully protected if at all. According to a recent Gallup poll, roughly 1 in 5 Americans refused to get vaccinated as of July and seemed unlikely to change their minds any time soon. While the surge in infections in low vaccination states is prompting some to reconsider, hold-outs remain.

The decision about whether to mask hasn't been as easy for financial institutions. While some are instituting mask policies because their state or city has made it mandatory, others are doing so out of an abundance of caution.

"Banks' highest priority is the health and safety of their customers and their staff," said Rose Oswald Poels, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Bankers Association. "Each bank will weigh its unique risks and determine their procedures for permitting customers to wear masks in jurisdictions that have a mask mandate. Customers should remember that banking services remain available online and through mobile applications as well as drive-throughs."

Credit unions, in particular, aim to differentiate themselves from their larger competitors through more personalized customer service, but face coverings and social distancing make this much harder to achieve, said Gerrish Smith Tuck, an attorney who provides consulting services to primarily smaller FIs, such as credit unions.

"The difficulty for these institutions is that their identity and competitive advantage is wrapped up in customer service and personal interaction," Tuck told American Banker. "So how do you maintain your identity and competitive advantage in a world where close contact is difficult?"

"One way to support close contact opportunities while minimizing risk is to promote vaccination among employees."

One way to support close contact opportunities while minimizing risk is to promote vaccination among employees. Indeed, some institutions are offering vaccine-hesitant colleagues certain incentives to receive the shot. For example, Virginia-based Chartway Federal Credit Union recently launched a contest called "Vax & Relax." If at least 70% of employees at Chartway get inoculated by Oct. 1, 10 employees chosen at random will receive $1,000 and five extra days for personal time off.

Much like the guidelines from health experts, the lengths to which Americans have gone to protect themselves and others from infection has varied considerably over the past year and a half. In April 2020, as many as 75% of Americans said they "mostly" adhered to social distancing recommendations, according to a separate Gallup survey. Fast forward to June 2021, it's down to 18%, with 47% making "no attempt" to self isolate.

More service channels equal more comfortable customers
Because people have responded to the coronavirus differently — and continue to do so— banks are aiming to provide their customers with as many service options as possible.

"There are customers who say 'I'll be darned, I still want to go into the bank branch and I don't want to wear a mask' and you want to do what you can to certainly preserve health and safety, but also not to offend that customer," Tuck told American Banker. "Financial institutions are really focusing right now on multiple delivery channels that provide the opportunity for service across all the spectrums of where the services may be needed, or how the services may be wished to be received by customers."

No one knows your customers and their preferred service channels better than you. Regardless of what safety measures you institute or reinstall, BranchServ Convergint can help you through it all. Take a look at our Pandemic Recovery Resources to see how we can be of assistance during these turbulent times.