Bank strategies evolve as customers keep their distance

coronavirus imageCommunity banks continue to close their lobbies, and encourage online banking as a way to promote social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

At Grand Rapids State Bank, Minn., and Minnesota Lakes Bank, Delano, Minn., all lobbies are closed, and in-bank services are available by appointment, but only after customers are screened through a series of questions.

Tellers working the drive-thru, which remain open at both banks, wear nitrile gloves. All staff who can work remotely are doing so, said Noah Wilcox, president and CEO, and staff with underlying health conditions are being paid to stay home. “We have a daily executive crisis management meeting and a morning briefing for all staff as well as an end of day briefing for all staff,” Wilcox said. “The community has been very supportive, other banks are starting to follow our lead and things are going smoothly.”

WaterStone Bank, Wauwatosa, Wis., will temporarily close lobby access in all of its 13 branches, starting March 18, until further notice. “We are closing branch lobbies since the health and welfare of our employees and customers is paramount,” said WaterStone Bank’s President and CEO Doug Gordon. “We will remain fully staffed to continue to provide exceptional remote service to all our customers.”

First Federal Bank, Waukesha, Wis., suspended lobby access on March 17. The $300 million bank’s branch teams are available via drive-thru and phone-banking services. The bank plans to resume lobby service on April 20.

First Farmers & Merchants Bank, Fairmount, Minn., is splitting its staff, with one half working from home as the other working in the office; the groups alternate each week “in the interest of business continuity and social distancing,” a source close to the bank reported.

A conversation between a BankBeat reporter and a Minnesota banker on March 17 was interrupted by the news that an employee had just tested positive for COVID-19.

The Minnesota Bankers Association emailed resources to its members, including a webinar on managing coronavirus operational risk, which will be held March 18, and a recorded webinar on coronavirus preparedness.

Please be assured that the MBA will do everything possible to help you stay informed and to assist you in navigating these unprecedented times,” the association said in the email. “Just as you are open for business, so is the MBA. We are, more than ever, the champion for Minnesota bankers.”

Meanwhile, the Federal Trade Commission issued a statement responding to the crisis, announcing that its employees were working remotely, aside from emergency personnel and staff. The FTC also suspended non-essential travel, and prohibited travel to high-risk countries, defined by the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of State. Lastly, the commission suspended unplanned visitor access to FTC facilities. Nearly all internal and external conferences and other public events in the foreseeable future will likely be held remotely, the statement said.

Our two main priorities, as always, are: The health and safety of our people, their families, and the entities and individuals who appear before us; and the continuity of our mission to protect consumers and competition,” an FTC statement read. 

The Kansas City Federal Reserve and its branch offices continue to carry out key functions for its seven-state region. “We have taken necessary steps focused on ensuring the health and well-being of our teams in Kansas City, Denver, Oklahoma City and Omaha, and our established contingency plans are allowing us to work effectively in the current environment,” said Esther George, the regional bank’s president and CEO.

“For the banking system, we stand ready to lend through the discount window and address any regulatory or supervisory concerns that may surface,” George said. “For the residents and businesses of our region, we continue to closely monitor developments affecting economic conditions and access to credit, working closely with our counterparts across the Federal Reserve System.”

The Federal Reserve, the FDIC and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency recently released a statement encouraging banks to use the Federal Reserve’s “discount window” so that they can continue supporting households and businesses. 

“Our ability to respond to the needs of our region and the nation is an important feature of the Federal Reserve System’s design. It is a source of strength in serving the public,” George said.

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