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The Sunshine Economy: A Look Back At The COVID-19 Year In Florida

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Denise Royal
The Fort Lauderdale Beach was empty on March 16, 2020 as the pandemic began to take hold in South Florida. In the year since, restaurant and hotel taxable sales continue rebounding from the COVID-19-induced collapse.

One year after the pandemic took hold of the economy, shutting down the hospitality industry and costing thousands of jobs, these business owners are fighting their way back. And in some cases, the future looks brighter now.

Canning jars, hoses, seeds and barbeque grills – those have been some of the hot items at Palm Beach Gardens' Ace Hardware in northern Palm Beach County throughout the pandemic.

"I haven't had a canning jar in my store since last April," said Joe Lingelbach, general manager of the Ace franchise.

Garden hoses and seeds also have been big sellers.

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Joe LingelBach_03122021.jpeg
courtesy: Joe Lingelbach
Palm Beach Gardens Ace Hardware General Manager Joe Lingelbach and one of his store's best sellers during to the pandemic – a Big Green Egg grill.

Hardware sales have been strong over the past year despite the pandemic. Taxable sales at hardware and paint stores in Palm Beach County jumped 13% over the first 11 months of last year according to state data. Overall taxable sales in Palm Beach County fell 6%. And even during the worst of the economic lockdowns — in April, May and June when sales revenues plunged 20% or more each month — taxable sales had double digit increases in two of those months at local hardware stores.

"People are in a good mood when they buy a grill, they're excited," Lingelbach said.

A year into the pandemic, some businesses have thrived from the stay-and-work from home trends, while others have had to figure out how to survive with health restrictions, some companies — even those relying directly on consumers — have flourished.

That was far from guaranteed a year ago when the economy was quickly shutting down as the pandemic was in its early days.

Voices from March 2020

The cascade of cancelations adds up to about $3 million.
Deidra Everdij, COTC Events
We're basically done for a couple of months. I've had 33 cancelations and that includes April and May.
Capt. Xavier Figueredo, Bay and Reef Company
The restaurants have accelerated in the declines. We are down 20, down 30, down 50 to 70 percent.
Abe Ng, Sushi Maki
The best-case scenario doesn't even look that good.
Steve Sawitz, Joe's Stone Crab Restaurant

The pandemic was still in its early days. The economic restrictions taken to slow the spread of COVID-19 were just beginning. There were no vaccines at this time.

These business owners represent companies feeding tourists and residents, organizing big corporate events at hotel conference centers and fishing the waters of the Florida Keys. One year later, they have made it through what they hope is the worst of the pandemic. And they are experiencing a return to business — not normal business for all, but at least growing expectations of better business conditions.

Data show how revenue has improved for hospitality businesses and just how bad business was at the depths of the COVID-caused recession.

The Pandemic Economy in Four Charts

Restaurants in South Florida have recovered from the pandemic compared to the industry nationwide.

Nationally, the number of in-person diners at restaurants in March is down by about a third versus pre-pandemic traffic. But in Miami, Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale, the customers are back.

"Being a native [of] Miami, we are used to adversity," said Abe Ng, the CEO of Sushi Maki.

When restaurants had to close their dining rooms, the industry was forced to shift to take-out and delivery — what the restaurant industry calls off-premises eating. He reduced the menu to focus on the best-sellers and what items traveled best. Fees that the restaurant has to pay to the online delivery apps like Uber Eats and DoorDash are squeezing margins. And he's experiencing pressure on employee pay because new restaurants are opening and competing for workers.

While data from Open Table show diners are back in seats in South Florida restaurants, revenues have remained below pre-pandemic levels. Taxable sales at restaurants collapsed as much as 90% last spring. They steadily recovered through the end of last year so that by November — which is the latest month of data from the Florida Department of Revenue — taxable sales at restaurants in Broward and Monroe counties were flat compared to a year earlier before COVID-19.

"We are poised to do pretty well," said Steve Sawitz of Joe's Stone Crab Restaurant. "We have to be careful, though. I'm for the slow nickel rather than the fast dime."

Sawitz said he raised the pay for employees in the early months of the pandemic — for “battle duty” he said, and to help retain workers. That was temporary but he said the restaurant continued its practice of annual pay hikes in January and most of the employees are back working, though in different shifts and with fewer hours.

"We are doing better than expected," he said.

This is the second pandemic spring break and it is in full swing along South Florida’s beaches.

Hotel occupancy in Miami Beach is down only 8% compared to a year ago, and the average revenue per available room higher by 7%. Hotels have been able to raise prices thanks to stronger demand. Airbnb bookings also are up, according to data from the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau.

These visitors are coming as the pandemic continues, with mask and social distancing requirements still in place. But the convention and conference business isn’t showing signs of returning yet.

In December, hotel rooms booked for conferences were down 89% compared to a year earlier. It was the worst month since March of 2020 when the pandemic forced the wholesale cancelations of conferences.

"I think that we are going to see a big pickup in the middle of the year for people looking to plan live in-person events again, but that may be for 2022. It might even be for 2023," said event planner Deidra Everdij. She has brought back four of her 15 pre-pandemic employees.

"In my experience with business, when things go bad, they go back that fast. And when they get good, they get good fast," she said. Her concern is that after more than a year of a dormant industry, it may be tough to service the demand when it returns. "We have lost talent. We've lost restaurants. We've lost vendors."

One of the most vulnerable local economies to the COVID-19 virus is the Florida Keys because of its reliance on tourism. Visitors have been responsible for about half the jobs in the Keys. And the Keys closed to all non-essential visitors for more than two months last spring. The tourism economy was cut-off in the effort to slow the spread of the virus.

But visitors are back.

"The situation down here has changed dramatically, and I am as busy as I've ever been," said Capt. Xavier Figueredo, who has been a sport fishing charter captain and back country guide for 20 years. "My calendar has filled up dramatically."

Monroe County is a small county in terms of population but before the pandemic it would welcome 5 million visitors a year, and one out of four of those visitors would be coming from overseas. COVID has closed the international tourism market. But American travelers have returned.

His business was cut in half last year thanks to the virus and travel bans.

"It was a hard year, but the future looks bright," Figueredo said.

Voices from March 2021

The future looks much, much better.
Deidra Everdij, COTC Events
March, April, and the near future seem very, very bright.
Capt. Xavier Figueredo, Bay and Reef Company
Into the summer and fall, and by the winter next year, we think things are turning for the better.
Age Ng, Sushi Maki
We're going to rebound — like a bull getting ready to run out of the gate.
Steve Sawitz, Joe's Stone Crab Restaurant

In a journalism career covering news from high global finance to neighborhood infrastructure, Tom Hudson is the Vice President of News and Special Correspondent for WLRN. He hosts and produces the Sunshine Economy and anchors the Florida Roundup in addition to leading the organization's news engagement strategy.