August 28, 2021 / VOLUME NO. 172
Vaccine Mandates

As a handful of big, New York City-based banks began announcing vaccine mandates at least for corporate staff, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs Group and Morgan Stanley among them, I couldn’t help but wonder how community banks are handling the surge in delta variant Covid-19 infections. 

New York City has high rates of vaccination. For example, in Manhattan, 68% of the population is fully vaccinated, according to the city health department. That compares to 51% for the United States overall as of Aug. 24, according to Our World in Data. Some rural areas have vaccination rates below 30%. 

For now, I predict many community bankers will stick to a carrot approach, not a stick. What they must balance is the difficulty recruiting and retaining staff with another concern: that the virus could easily send home entire departments or branches. 

I got on the phone this week with a level-headed pair of bank leaders: George Leis, the chief operating officer of Montecito Bank & Trust in southern California, and Noah Wilcox, the chairman and CEO of two banks, Grand Rapids State Bank in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Minnesota Lakes Bank in Delano, Minnesota. To get a sense of the size of those banks, keep in mind that Grand Rapids Bank is the largest of Wilcox’s chartered banks and has an asset size of $280 million. Montecito has $2.2 billion.

Both bankers think their vaccination rates are high, north of 75% of staff. Still, Montecito has put off plans to reopen offices for all employees in September, sticking to a policy where only about a third of staff is on site. Although there are ongoing discussions about what to do about the delta variant, for now, the bank is asking employees to say if they’re vaccinated and to wear a mask in the office if they’re not. 

Wilcox has taken a similar approach. Employees should tell human resources if they’re vaccinated. If they aren’t or don’t want to show proof, they need to wear a mask. “If we mandate vaccines, I’m not exactly sure who it is, but we’re going to lose some really key people in our organization by that one act,” Wilcox says. 

It’s been a difficult balance between respecting employees’ individual choices and keeping everyone safe. The changing guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has made it tougher. With breakthrough infections surfacing among the fully vaccinated, CDC’s latest recommendation is that everyone, even the vaccinated, wear a mask indoors in areas with substantial or high transmission rates.

Montecito Bank knows tragedy. It had a solid disaster preparedness plan. The bank adjusted operations when the 2018 wildfires were followed by catastrophic mudslides that killed 21.

And yet, Leis says, the pandemic seems different. “Once the mud is cleared, we return back to normal,” he says. But the pandemic “is just something that is really hard to prepare for.” It’s been a mudslide that never ends. 

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