As an industry veteran who got his start as a teenager in the 1970s, Premier Senior Living Co-Founder, Managing Member and CEO Wayne Kaplan had seen it all — until Covid-19 made its global debut this year.
Now, like many other senior living providers, New York City-based Premier is navigating uncharted waters. So far, the company is in good shape, even as its corporate offices are closed due to citywide precautions to slow the spreading pandemic.
“We have no residents or staff at any of our communities that have the coronavirus, staffing is not a problem, and so far we have all of the PPE supplies, food, et cetera, that we need,” Kaplan told Senior Housing News in an email Monday. “Keeping my fingers crossed.”
Kaplan has weathered many different crises over the years. Though he expects to weather this one, too, there are many unknowns that lie ahead for the industry and for the nation.
Senior Housing News caught up with Kaplan to learn how Premier Senior Living is coping with the pandemic, and to talk about how Covid-19 stacks up against some of the other challenges he’s seen over the years.
The following interview was edited for length and clarity:
SHN: How are things at Premier Senior Living? I know you are based in New York City, which is being hit hard by Covid-19 right now.
Kaplan: We have 23 communities in six different states. Even though our main corporate offices are in New York City, our communities are all over. Right now, thank God, we have no coronavirus outbreaks among any residents or staff. And we hope it stays that way.
The New York City environment is a little bit different because they have so many different cases. Our communities basically have stopped all visitors from entering. All delivery and packages, they have to just ring the bell and leave it at the front door so our staff can come get it.
Given the state of the outbreak in New York City, is this affecting your corporate operations?
No, it really hasn’t. Along with my partner, Bob Borsody, we can work from anywhere as long as we have a laptop and a phone. My wife and I have a country house out on Long Island, and we’re sheltering out of the country house right now. And I’m talking to my people all day, every day. Emails are flying back and forth. We’re having conference calls. So there’s really no difference. I can’t go back to my office building in New York City because they’ve had a couple of cases of coronavirus.
This is a hard time for staffing, partly because of all the school closures. How do you mitigate those challenges?
It’s really tough. If a staff member has no choice, we don’t want young kids coming into the building while this crisis is ongoing. Sometimes, some of the staff will help with the childcare issues. We have three or four staff members, they all have little kids, and sometimes one will stay home with all the kids and the other three will go to work. And then, they’ll switch it off from day to day.
So far, we haven’t had too many staffing-related issues. Again, that can change from day to day, but so far, it’s been okay. We’re communicating with our staff and our residents and our families as often as possible, if not daily, regarding what’s going on. We’re posting more Facebook pictures showing residents smiling and doing things. We have little kids, staff kids, even my grandchildren, and they’re drawing pictures and sending them into the buildings just to put a smile on somebody’s face. Because right now, it’s just what you need.
How has Covid-19 impacted what you do on the dining side? I know that a lot of providers have moved from congregate dining settings to delivering meals to residents’ rooms.
We’ve done the exact same thing. No more congregate dining, just meals in residents’ rooms. We’re not having any communal activities either. We’re spreading out over a longer period of time so that staff can assist residents who need help. Sometimes memory care residents need assistance in eating so, we’re just spreading it out. Dining has kind of become an all-day activity.
What does that mean for non-essential dining personnel people like front-of-house workers or servers?
We try to cross-train all or most of our employees. So, if there’s not one essential function for them to do, they’ll still come to work and do something else. We do really try to cross-train our employees for food service activities and sometimes personal care assistance. And with some staff calling out because of childcare issues at home because the schools are closed, we’re utilizing all the staff and the job changes from day to day.
We’re very thankful that we have the staff coming into the building. I think they’re very thankful that they didn’t get laid off, like all the restaurant and the hotel workers. So, everybody’s making the best of it.
I know Premier has focused on providing a high quality of care for residents. Do you feel like that focus has better equipped you to handle something like Covid-19?
I don’t know better is the right word, but it’s enabled us to deal with it as best as we can. We deal with the flu. Not just my company, but the whole senior housing industry. Every year, the flu is a big concern, and we have policies and protocols. I don’t want to minimize it, but this is kind of like just the flu on steroids, for lack of a better term.
This coronavirus is much different than the normal flu we get from season to season. But we still have the policies and the protocols in place to deal with it.
We’re still early in this crisis, but how do you expect the Covid-19 outbreak to affect things like revenue or move-ins and tours at Premier?
I think it’s a lot different for different companies, depending on their size and depending who they are, where they are. I think right now, everybody’s going to take a hit to revenue because most people have stopped doing new admits and new tours out of cautiousness, and it makes sense.
But I think that a few weeks or months down the road, the business is going to pick up because people from nursing homes [who] don’t really need the nursing homes are going to start going to assisted living so they can clear out the nursing homes. And people who don’t really need to be in a hospital for coronavirus can go to a nursing home. And I think everything’s just going to shift one level down.
So, in the end, it’s probably going to be very good for senior housing providers, but we’ve just got to get over this coronavirus hump.
You started in this industry as a high schooler in the 1970s. How does this compare to some of the other times of hardship for the senior living industry that you’ve witnessed?
It’s different. You know, one of the things about having been in this industry for so long is, I’ve been through a lot of good times and a lot of bad times, like when it was difficult to make payroll on Friday sometimes. And there have been flu outbreaks that emptied out buildings. So, today, it’s not that much different. I can’t tell you what’s going to happen tomorrow or next week or next month. But I can tell you that, as of today, it’s not that much different, and not that much has changed.
Do you think we might see any senior living companies go out of business from this?
I don’t really know. I hope not, for the good of the industry. I know the small providers all over the country who deal with either SSI [supplemental security income] or Medicaid, they’re having a tough time as it is. So obviously, this can only hurt and drive the nail in a little further.
And I’m not talking about big public companies, where stocks are going down. I’m talking about mostly regional operators, small mom-and-pops, which are still a good percentage of this industry. So, it might affect a few. I certainly hope it doesn’t.
But you have reasons to be hopeful about the future.
Yeah, I do. Because I think families are going to realize that, hey, senior housing is a pretty good protective place for my mom or my dad or my loved one, that they do have staff 24/7, and they do know how to take care of a thing like this. The industry is run really well. You have mostly very good operators who always want to do the right thing by their residents and by their staff. That certainly includes Premier Senior Living.
I think business will pick up. We’ve just got to get through this initial bump when things begin to go down.
What happens to the industry if there is a widespread economic recession?
I don’t think it’s going to have a major effect. And with interest rates being so low, there’s going to be a lot of good acquisition opportunities out there. We’re certainly still looking for good acquisitions. It might be a lot of people — more of the mom-and-pop types — who say, you know, it’s time to get out.
Again, I’m not going to predict what the public companies are going to do. But I think a lot of the mom-and-pops want to get out of the business with a sale because they’ve had enough, and they want to put on their white shoes and their white belts and go to Florida or the equivalent. And there will be a lot of good opportunities.