Regardless of the sector or location, 2020 has been a trying time for all Upstate entities. As we move into a new year, an uncertain future remains. To help us to better understand some of the ongoing challenges from the pandemic and resulting economic crisis, we have compiled a group of local, regional and state business, government and non-profit leaders who will periodically share their insights on a variety of topics and community issues. By sharing their struggles, successes and continued efforts they will help all Upstate entities better understand and navigate this uncertain future.

In our first set of questions to the group, we asked them about how they personally and within their organizations and communities have addressed some of the challenges associated with the pandemic and resulting impacts.

Each member was asked to answer at least two questions within the set.

What is one significant change you have made personally or professionally during the pandemic that you would not have done if not for the pandemic?

I have spent a lot more time at home with our young son since the pandemic began.  Though it has been very difficult to balance childcare with working full-time, I feel (and I am told) that I will not regret spending this time with him when we are both older.  I much better appreciate the plight of working parents, and how public policy makes childcare so much more difficult and expensive than it should be. – Paul Cain, Oconee County Council Member

As with most, I have had to become proficient in all manner of virtual and electronic communication and being very much oriented to personal one on one communication, this was a somewhat difficult task for me. It also required me to hone my skills at more succinct/efficient messages to my members and board, understanding that some things may be lost in translation or misconstrued when not accompanied by the usual voice inflection or other personal touch. – Susan Cohen, President, Clemson Chamber of Commerce

Our entire list of SOP’s have changed, at least professionally.  Socially distanced, mask-wearing prospect visits, virtual incentive negotiations, no travel for trade missions or company visits.  While activity has been surprisingly good, the overwhelming health risks associated with the pandemic has definitely slowed the search process for many of our prospective companies. – Mark Farris, President, Greenville Area Development Corporation

I enjoy better connectivity with my colleagues across the state due to adoption and usage of virtual meetings.  Like everyone, I’ve always had the technology, the pandemic just provided a reason to use it. – David Feild, Market President, Colliers International

I have slowed down to enjoy my surroundings more, my family, friends, and co-workers. – Amanda Munyan, President & CEO, Laurens County Chamber of Commerce

I have transitioned to an almost total virtual environment in my personal and professional life.  In doing so, I learned to navigate numerous virtual platforms.  This also brought new meaning to the phrase, “we are all in this together” as all of us were learning to adapt, be flexible and patient in navigating these challenging times.  – Mamie Nicholson, President, Self Family Foundation

Virtual meetings, both personally and professionally.  In the past, I had the wrong impression that virtual meetings were hard to set up.  I am so grateful to have had this technology at my fingertips to keep projects moving forward – and to “see” my family over the last nine months. – Katherine O’Neill, Chief Economic Development Officer, One Spartanburg

Made direct connections to our clients. – Chuck Saylors, Vice President, MB Kahn; Greenville County Schools Trustee

We have always been a busy family, so sitting down for dinner multiple nights in a row was never really an option.  The pandemic not only provided a chance for us to sit down together every night for dinner (cooking or take-out), it also provided time for Steve and I to spend with our son Walker as he finished his senior year at Furman from our home.  I consider this “forced” family time one of my “COVID silver linings”. – Liz Seman, Chief of Staff, Furman University; Greenville County Council member

Minor Shaw, Chairman, Daniel-Mickel Foundation

I have become more “tech” savvy and have learned various forms of communication tools – zoom, Microsoft teams, Web X, etc. This has allowed me to be at home more with my family, work from our vacation home at the beach, etc. I have also connected with new and old friends. – Minor Shaw, Chairman, Daniel-Mickel Foundation

We have transitioned board and committee meetings to a virtual video format. We had utilized a call-in option on occasion that was not effective. Using a virtual video format has increased our board member attendance and has not diminished our board engagement in generative discussion. Going forward, this will be an option for all board and committee meetings. – Paige Stephenson, President & CEO, United Way of the Piedmont

Professionally – A refocus on how we communicated with existing industry. We usually met with our existing industries on a biannual basis in person. Due to the dynamics of the pandemic, we started reaching out regularly to our existing and examining their needs. – Stephen Taylor, Director, Abbeville County Economic Development

COVID-19 provided me an opportunity to rethink my professional goals.  In August, I began my MBA journey at the University of South Carolina – Aiken.  I have found the experience rewarding and very timely given our present circumstances. – Trentsie Williams, Director of Finance, Meg’s House

Have you personally started or rekindled any habits, hobbies or such things to help you deal with the added stress and anxiety of these unsettled times?

I have begun mountain biking, hiking, and talking walks regularly.  Unfortunately, in my pre-COVID busy-ness, I forgot what originally attracted me to the Upstate: incredible natural beauty.  COVID has forced me outdoors to recreate and to socialize, and I am very grateful to be reacquainted with God’s beautiful creation. – Paul Cain

The early days of the pandemic, with many activities unavailable, allowed me the time to actually sit and read a book, many in fact and I also rekindled my hobby of painting. – Susan Cohen

My main outdoor activity is backpacking and I have been able to do more this year although the trails are decidedly busier.  If the pandemic has taught us anything it’s that our society values an opportunity to get outside and reconnect with nature.  I’ve noticed that Greenville County’s Geer Highway has three times the number of cars than in years past.  These outdoor assets that we may have taken for granted in years past are being overwhelmed. – Mark Farris

I have re-adopted my on-again / off-again hobby of jogging.  I have become much more consistent over the past 9 months and even had to buy some better fitting clothes. – David Feild

My husband and I purchased kayaks and used them over the summer to explore new lakes that we have not been able to go to in the past. This was something that allowed us to get outside, get some exercise and see some new places! We were able to fish from these as well so have been in search of catching the big one! The ability to be so quiet on the water allows you to also get up close with wildlife along the shore. We also set up a saltwater fish tank and have been learning about the care and upkeep of that. There are so many different fish and corals to learn about and instead of turning the TV on, we have been able to keep it off and just watch the tank. We have also been reading on the care and upkeep of the tank and learning a lot about it. Yet another way to allow us to turn off the news and find something relaxing to do together.  – Angie Gossett, Regional Marketing Director, BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina

Yes. While I have always enjoyed fitness, I recently branched out and began the C25K running program.  It allows for 30-45 minutes of down time and has allowed me to truly unwind and unplug during these uncertain times. – Kelly McWhorter, Executive Director, Discover Greenwood

I have started listening to podcasts more often, some inspirational and some entertaining.  Depending on my current mood or need, I can find comfort or pleasure through various topics. – Amada Munyan

I’ve been curious about meditation and mindfulness for a long time, but I haven’t made an effort to actually sit down and practice it. During the summer, I downloaded the app Ten Percent Happier (after I listened to Dan Harris’s great book by the same title) and did their 21- day meditation challenge (which the app’s creators noted was a bit of an oxymoron, since practicing mindfulness shouldn’t feel like a competition). I’ve continued with regular meditation, and I can honestly say that I feel it has rewired my brain: my stress and anxiety are lower and some chronic pains have gone away. – Katy Smith, Executive Director, Piedmont Health Foundation and Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy

One of the biggest things that has helped me personally has been having a support group of peers that are dealing with the pandemic and our response.  We have a group of City Manager/Administrators that can provide support in challenging times, find humor where possible, and help vent when needed.  We have also been able to share solutions and items that have been implemented during Covid response.  With no one having a guide or previous experience in handling such matters, having a support group of colleagues has been a very valuable tool to help deal with the stress and anxiety that Covid has brought.  – Stephen Steese, City Manager, City of Easley

I now have specific news podcasts that start my day.  I also have spent more “off” or “between” times listening to audiobooks. During warmer weather, I was walking as a stress reliever. – Paige Stephenson

What has been the general “spirit” of people within your work place or community in dealing with the unforeseen and unpredictable challenges resulting from the pandemic and its wide-spread impacts?

The health system is built for short-term disasters and emergencies.  I have seen tremendous swings in “spirit” of the healthcare workers.  At the onset there was amazing energy and coordination to prepare.  As the pandemic has pushed on the emotional strength of healthcare workers has been tested.  During the first local surge in June and July, the team responded very well.  While weary, they pushed through and felt very accomplished.  However, as we are experiencing the onset of the 2nd surge we are seeing signs of PTSD resulting in fear, anger and defeat.  I saw a great meme last week of a nurse holding a sign that simply said, “just wear your mask…I’m tired”.  – Justin Benfield, Chief Executive Officer, Prisma Health – Laurens County Hospital

Our team understood we needed to keep our social media outreach, to both members and the public, as robust as possible to insure we stayed top of mind, especially in our tourism promotions.  I feel it fostered a renewed commitment to look past “the way we have always done things” – after all we had no choice but to change, and everyone pitched in. – Susan Cohen

Neal Collins, SC House of Representatives

From a legislator perspective, I would say one word for the community is “resilient.” 2020 has been a tough year for everyone. The community has been understandably concerned about health, finances, and liberties. Many have gone on unemployment briefly. Many have been infected or know someone close who has been. All have sacrificed in some form or fashion. Through it all, there have been many more examples of kindness than not. The community has been resilient. – Neal Collins, Representative, S.C. House of Representatives

While there are groups of people at either end of the spectrum, most of the folks I have been around are cautious and concerned but not letting the pandemic consume their lives.  I think it’s been shown that with appropriate safeguards, the virus threat can be reduced.  I’m also surprised that the combination of recent social unrest, economic insecurity AND the pandemic have shown the majority of people to be humane and considerate. – Mark Farris

For the most part, the spirit has been one of innovation and resourcefulness – how do I do my job, serve my client, meet my goals with these new challenges?  We have also tried to treat this pandemic as an opportunity for increased market share at the expense of those not being creative and innovative.  – David Feild

The general spirit has been one of adaptability as people have worked from home, meetings and events have shifted to virtual, and school closures and alternate schedules have changed. In addition, we have all learned a little more about each other’s personal lives.  From pets on Zoom and kitchen backgrounds, to children screaming and maybe even a few awkward moments as a spouse pops up in the background of a call.  I think it has taught us all not to take ourselves too seriously and to be a little more gracious to our colleagues as everyone faces challenges. – Sara Hazzard, President & CEO, South Carolina Manufacturers Alliance

The arts industry is, to be blunt, getting killed out there. The field’s entire business model relies on gathering people, typically in one space for a few hours, with success tied to the number of people at that gathering. Additionally, for many art forms, the creation of artwork requires numerous people in close proximity – theatre, dance, music for example. Each organization has had to find ways to either shift their entire program models, go into a state of limbo, or drastically reduce their footprint – usually a combination of both. But while the industry overall feels helpless at many times, there is innovation and hope springing from this crisis. Creativity comes from limits, and there are plenty of limits in place right now. Changes in business models, physical operations, and program innovation are occurring. – G.P. McLeer, Executive Director, South Carolina Arts Alliance; Mayor, City of Fountain Inn

Our work environment has tried its best to forge ahead despite the pandemic.  While our staff turnover has been higher than most years, ironically, it is due to retirements, career changes, and the like.  Fortunate that no staff positions have been sacrificed due to the pandemic.  So overall, our spirit is optimistic that 2021 will see better opportunities to come together again for special events, festivals, recruited events, etc. – Kelly McWhorter

Overall the small group of people I communicate with daily have kept their spirits up.  There have definitely been some moments of worry and concern, but I have been amazed at the ability of others to adjust to the circumstances.  – Amanda Munyan

I am so proud of the level of connectedness, collaboration, communication and partnership that has developed around taking care of our community, our children, our elderly, our nonprofit organizations and just a general acceptance of what we have considered normal may never be “normal” again. – Mamie Nicholson

I have been tremendously impressed with the “good spirit” of the people with whom I work, whether in the community or in my work venues, both for-profit and not-for-profit. The circumstances surrounding COVID have resulted in more entrepreneurism and determination. – Minor Shaw

There has been a mixture of challenges in resulting from the pandemic and how people throughout our community has handled these challenges.  The general spirit of people in the community can be split into three general groups. The first is those that are upset that their lives have been impacted by the pandemic through cancelled events, impacts to school, and just the feeling that actions are overreaching.  There is a set that believes that our actions have not gone far enough and that we should make more restrictions and more actively enforce them.  The last group is the majority of the citizens and those are ones that are trying to balance some semblance of pre-Covid life and the impact it has had on their life.  These are most see here in our Parks and Recreation programs.  It is people who are willing to comply with restrictions, protocols, and quarantines to try and maintain some engagement and outreach for their children. – Stephen Steese

Our team members have risen to the occasion. There have been moments of feeling overwhelmed, but we’ve tried to encourage team members to step away and recharge. We’ve established a “wellness Wednesday” for team members to participate in a variety of mindfulness or self-care activities. – Paige Stephenson

I feel that our community has taken on the pandemic quite well. I think my biggest concern in a rural community is the elderly. Most people who are shut in get very little interaction.  Our rural telephone cooperative provided additional free wi-fi hotspots in more places in order for the public to have access to wi-fi if they did not already have it in their homes. – Stephen Taylor

One co-worker has faced a good deal of additional stress because of ever-changing school schedules – he has two children, ages 6 & 9, and his wife is a teacher. Eight members of another co-worker’s family tested positive for COVID-19. She had to miss approximately two weeks of work because of this, but thankfully, everyone completely recovered. Despite these circumstances, they have done very well with their job responsibilities. – Tim Todd, Executive Director, Discover Upcountry

Trentsie Williams

My workplace has responded well to the unforeseen and unpredictable challenges.  Our office worked remotely for 10 weeks and continued to provide excellent services to the clients we serve.  Through weekly Zoom meetings, we discussed the challenges of serving our clients as well as the physical and mental challenges of everyday life during a pandemic. – Trentsie Williams

You can read the second set of questions here.

You can view the list of participants here.