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How commercial lenders in Sonoma, Marin, Napa counties are adapting to the coronavirus

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Financial institution relief efforts

Learn more about relief efforts by individual banks and credit unions.

It may not be “a wonderful life” right now for many, but North Bay banks are creating measures to do all they can to safely and efficiently provide their customers with one of the United States’ most precious resources now — money.

These precautions and enhancements also apply to the banks’ own branch employees, as this essential industry tries to navigate the coronavirus outbreak.

Many banks are allowing more ways for their customers to make transactions as well as consistently disinfecting their branches. Some banks limit the number of people in the branch at any given time and shortened their hours. Others have even waived fees for transactions made at other banks.

Novato-based Bank of Marin has implemented a social-distancing policy that only allows for two customers in its branches at the same time.

“We’re seeing our customers adhering to less lobby traffic,” said Brandi Campbell, Bank of Marin’s director of retail banking, who has 30 years of experience in banking. “I think they have comfort in knowing we’re open.”

Since the teller stations are 3 feet apart, the bank has also staggered the front-line workers, closing stations in between them. All tellers are wearing protective gloves, and other bank employees are encouraged to do so.

For customers who want to drop and run, the branches are also collecting deposits made at the night drop box twice a day before the opening and at closure. It used to be checked once a day.

Like most banks, the Bank of Marin is seeing increased traffic with its online services.

Expanding mobile deposit options

For people on the go, the mobile deposit application was adjusted to allow for higher deposit amounts up to $50,000. That’s double what the maximum used to be before the coronavirus outbreak.

Comerica Bank has also found that elevating its digital commercial banking services has immensely helped in this period of social distancing.

“We have electronic means to deliver deposits via check capture devices, and yes, we are becoming more creative with ways to stay in touch with our customers,” Comerica Senior Vice President Chris Thomson said from his Sacramento office, referring to using mobile devices like smart phones to make transactions. “Zoom meetings are becoming a big thing.”

Customers insisting on showing up in person at the bank will find only three customers at a time are allowed in the branch. If necessary, they can wait in the vestibule or in their cars and receive a call when they can enter the branch.

Like Bank of Marin, Comerica branch hours have shortened to 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday to alleviate the chance of the virus spreading. Customers are also encouraged to use ATMs.

Comerica also urges its customers to keep an eye out for fraud activity on their accounts — another potential headache caused by the global pandemic.

“We know that in times of stress, bad people try to take advantage of the situation, and unfortunately, the current pandemic is no different,” said Paul Benda, senior vice president of risk and cybersecurity policy with the American Bankers Association in Washington, D.C. “Banks focus on cybersecurity and have good protections in place for their customer data.”

Benda suggests American banks emphasize the “multi-factor authentication” on all accounts. This could include using multiple security question to verify those who want access to the account.

Financial institution relief efforts

Learn more about relief efforts by individual banks and credit unions.

“We’re all seeing a move to the virtual world, with more people exploring their banks’ mobile applications,” Benda said, characterizing the trend as “a bank branch in the pocket.”

Benda even noted how seniors from coast to coast are catching on to the technological convenience spawned about five years ago with the growing popularity of smart phones. Before that, e-banking transformed the industry.

The two major changes in the way people bank have turned out to be a blessing to both consumers and bank executives.

“I think banks are doing all they can to push people into digital channels,” he said.

Early adopters of the trends cite a much cleaner way to perform transactions.

How clean is the money?

Let’s face it. Dirty money has always been a consideration for a method of exchange that passes so many hands.

“There have been studies for years on viruses transmitted on cash. In this case, the (Centers for Disease Control & Prevention) has indicated (cash) is no worse than doorknobs,” Benda said.

Still, many branches have made hand sanitizer bottles as well as disinfectant spray and wipes available for use as Luther Burbank Savings has.

The Santa Rosa bank sent out correspondence to its employees, urging them to share their concerns and grievances during these troubling times.

Chief Executive Officer Simone Lagomarsino has also sent out correspondence to its customers, inviting them “to call your branch to conduct transactions by phone, including transfers between accounts, withdrawals by cashier’s check, placing stop payment orders, managing CD rollovers and getting loan inquiries answered.”

The expansion of services also includes the waiving of fees in using ATM machines outside the network of 11 branches, Santa Rosa and San Rafael among them.

Bank executives throughout California have worked to solidify the relationship with their customers. Part of this experience involves a personal touch, even with the advent of social distancing.

“I think from our members perspective the banks are trying to still keep their branches open and staffed,” California Bankers Association spokeswoman Beth Mills said of its 150 bank members.

Banks becoming more creative

Despite most banks pushing technology interfaces, Mills said some banks have come to embrace allowing family members to speak for loved ones if they’re listed on those accounts.

“With the elderly, there’s a little bit of a challenge with online services, but if they have difficulty, we’re seeing banks allowing assists (from family members),” she said. “Still, there’s a fine line with relaxed standards, especially with financial elder abuse.”

No convenient service replaces the personal relationship some have with their bank. But these days, human contact may jeopardize one’s health.

Banks have stressed taking measures to stem the tide of those challenges.

One example — Silicon Valley Bank’s Wine Division in Napa has established a video chat, email and phone channel with its customer base to help alleviate the special circumstances this hospitality-based industry faces.

“It’s a difficult time for everyone, but we are getting through. With the recent bills passed (in Congress), we’re working on determining how we can partner to help get out the aid,” Executive Vice President Rob McMillan said.

McMillan indicated some of the bank’s winery clients “have lost half their sales from tasting rooms and restaurants.”

According to the American Banking Association, here is how other banks are enhancing health safeguards and economic measures to serve their communities:

Umpqua Bank: regular deep cleaning of facilities and practicing social distancing measures; relief programs for small business customers such as deferring payments on loans and lines of credit

Live Oak Bank: employee staffing in the form of remote work; on-campus kitchen to prepare food for a local homeless shelter

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