Is there a silver lining to the pandemic? It depends on who you ask.
For Mass Cultural Council Executive Director Michael Bobbitt, it's the "forced" use of digital art spaces, a tool he said artists and cultural centers didn't capitalize on before the pandemic.
"Most of us, the only way you can consume art was going to that space, which meant that some people didn't have access because they live too far away," he said. "We're seeing some audiences grow their patron base because of the digital media."
128 Business Council Executive Director Monica Tibbits-Nutt said companies and employees have proven that they don't need to be in the office five days a week.
"I think we've proven that not only is this better for people's lives, as Michael said, we can spend more time with our kids, we can spend more time being able to go to doctor's appointments and not having to take an entire day off," Tibbits-Nutt said. "And I think people understand that the productivity is actually higher, we're seeing people being able to get more done."
Arts and culture, transportation, and higher education were all represented during a Thursday webinar hosted by the Newton Needham Chamber that explored how nonprofits and businesses can successfully reemerge from the pandemic.
Each of those sectors was hit particularly hard as a result of public health measures intended to keep people safe during the pandemic. Performance halls shut down, residents stayed off trains and buses, and college campuses transitioned to hybrid models of learning — all of which took a toll on individuals' mental health.
A survey of 473 Newton Needham Chamber's members found that 62 percent were worried about the impact COVID had on employees' mental health as it relates to business success in 2021.
William James College President Nicholas Covino said extended periods of social isolation experienced throughout the pandemic have had heightened symptoms of anxiety, depression, and PTSD.
"We've seen secondary trauma, pick the area, we watched a man die on television many times. We've seen lots of examples on the nightly news of mortuaries made out of trucks," Covino said. "We've had a really difficult time. And so I think the message for us is even though we can be optimistic, we need to be extremely thoughtful about our employees and ourselves frankly."
Public transportation workers, for instance, experienced mental strain as they adapted the sector to keep riders and themselves safe throughout the pandemic, Tibbits-Nutt said.
"It was really, really hard on the frontline workers and that's before you get into their co-workers were testing positive, their families were getting sick," she said. " And they were put in the same stressful situation as a lot of other people, except they still had to go to work every single day."
Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Mike Kennealy said the administration "tried to make what we felt was the right decision from both a public health and economic standpoint."
"It was incredibly difficult work and incredibly consequential decisions, and literally a set of work and decisions that have never been done before, by definition, trying to figure out what should be open according to what protocols and what should remain closed," he said during the webinar.
The Chamber's survey also found that 74 percent of their members were concerned about attracting and retaining workers. Another statistic: 80 percent of respondents said they feel optimistic about their business or nonprofit's financial performance for the remainder of 2021.
While there is reason to look toward a brighter future, Bobbitt detailed just how hard the pandemic impacted the culture and artist industry. A March survey by the cultural council showed that there was an over $588 million loss in the arts and culture sector, Bobbitt said, adding that about 30,000 jobs were also lost.
As the industry looks to reopen, he said there is still a lack of consumer confidence in returning to large artistic or cultural settings.
"And most individual artists who scramble to put together enough revenue to live on lost a third of their income. So the sector has been devastated. Some people are calling it a cultural depression, it's gonna take a lot of work to get it back," he said. "I think we're going to have another three or four really tough years before we will really see recovery."