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There's a long way to go, but the South Florida economy and COVID-19 outlook are improving

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 A vial of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine awaits use at a CVS clinic in Miami
Tom Hudson
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A vial of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine awaits use at a CVS clinic in Miami.

The South Florida economy has been growing, but it remains far from its pre-pandemic condition. Meantime, the virus continues spreading.

"On the mend" is how Howard Frank, director of Florida International University's Metropolitan Center, describes the South Florida economy a year and a half after the COVID-19 pandemic began.

"We are still in the highest level of community transmission," said Dr. Zinzi Bailey, a social epidemiologist with the University of Miami.

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These views on the economy and virus highlight the continued push-and-pull between the need for business activity and public health protections.

"We can't divorce economics from public health," said Bailey. "We need to be thinking about both. I think this polarity is really driven more from our politics than from the reality."

Florida was one of the first states to reopen after the sudden shutdown to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the early weeks of the pandemic. More than a year later, the balance between the need for economic activity and public health protections remains as charged as it did then.

For the virus and the South Florida economy — things have improved compared to what we’ve experienced, but the recovery from the coronavirus and its economic consequences are far from complete.

Jobs have returned, but there remain 200,000 fewer positions in South Florida compared to the month before the pandemic. And more than 100,000 fewer people are considered part of the workforce now versus just before the virus.

Howard Frank FIU_10042021.jpeg
courtesy: Pérez Metropolitan Center/FIU
Dr. Howard Frank is the Director of FIU's Pérez Metropolitan Center, which publishes economic recovery indexes for South Florida.

The hospitality sector has been the hottest place in the job market, increasing more than 60% since the depths of the COVID-induced economic depression. It’s also the most vulnerable to the virus, highlighting how the South Florida economy remains very exposed to COVID-19 — and these are jobs that tend to pay less than the average wage.

"I wonder if people at the lower end of the wage spectrum are doing a wholesale reevaluation of how much they're willing to take," Frank said.

Employers have been rising pay in the effort to attract workers.

"There are signals that are being sent and I think the labor market is responding. Whether [they] will be permanent or not, we'll see wages generally pretty sticky on the downside. I think the question will be, will these wage gains cover the cost of living?" said Frank, referring to the pick-up in inflation.

ZinziBailey-10042021.jpeg
Heather Whipps
Dr. Zinzi Bailey is a social epidemiologist at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

Not a lot of companies are instituting vaccine requirements for workers. Only about one in 10 South Florida companies require proof of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to Census Bureau data. A slightly higher percentage are requiring employees to test negative before coming to work.

This past summer was the second summertime surge of COVID-19 in Florida. The summer of 2021 was different, though — there were vaccines. Companies began bringing some workers back to the office. And the highly contagious delta strain took hold. The infection rates, hospitalizations and deaths are decreasing but the surge in cases was not due to any seasonality of the virus, according to Bailey.

"It has to do with a combination of our behaviors, the delta variant, as well as interaction with policy. We've started to transition back to being an indoor places. I know that a lot of employers are starting to bring people back into the building. We have allowed a lot more events to happen and, particularly in Florida, we actually have an intense heat. So a lot of people are driven indoors to share the the joys of air conditioning," Bailey said.

As the pandemic wears on, the economy continues to be subject to the virus. Passenger traffic at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in August slowed somewhat from the pace of the months before. Hotel room rates and demand also fell in August according to data from the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"We need to be thinking about how we are going to live with COVID, as it seems to be getting to be endemic, which is just another way of saying that it's something that is going to be with us for a while," said Zinzi.

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.