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The Sunshine Economy

The Sunshine Economy: Working and Living With COVID-19

AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee
Stores were closed along this stretch of Little Havana in Miami on May 14, 2020. Retail stores can reopen at 50 percent capacity as of Monday, May 18.

The new normal is here. Florida began a full phase one reopening with restaurant dining rooms, shopping malls and hotels reopening with limitations on Monday.


It’s a calculated effort balancing the need to protect public health and the demand for economic activity. How long and lasting will this new normal be? It may be a balance between infection rates and unemployment rates -- between epidemiology and economics.

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Tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs. More have lost at least part of their income. Work has changed. For those who can, their homes now double as office space. For others, masks, face shields and gloves have become part of their work wardrobe. Social distancing is now the rule for everyone.

The Sunshine Economy spoke with two people who research and think a lot about how we live and work in South Florida, how this region has benefited from globalization, and the risks that may pose now.

Working and Living Spaces

Richard Florida hunkered down with his wife and young children in their Miami Beach condomium during the stay-at-home order. They split their time between Toronto, where he is a professor, and South Florida, where he is a visiting fellow with the FIU-Miami Urban Future Initiative. He is among the millions of people who can work remotely. As companies reopen, he expects many of them will rethink their office space.

"I think this thing with remote work is going to be a long-term shift. I think companies are going to realize that it's cheaper," he said. "I think the shift to remote work for about 40 percent of the workforce is going to be a big deal. And I don't think we'll ever go back to quite as many people working in offices as we had before."

Such a trend would have an enormous impact on commercial real estate. The lure of co-working spaces drops with social distancing guidelines. Open office architecture looks different when workers have to wear facial coverings. Lobbies and elevators pose public health risks that weren't recognized before the pandemic.

I don't think we'll ever go back to quite as many people working in offices as we had before. - Urbanist Richard Florida

Florida said companies may institute staggered work schedules to spread out the times people are in offices. He expects temperature checks at the office door. "We're going to see less office space be needed as more people work from home," he said.

In land-constrained South Florida, the last decade has witnessed a resurgence of residential and commercial development in urban areas. Some areas have created live-work-play density. Even as social distancing discourages close contact, Florida does not think the urbanization trend is over even as people rethink their living spaces.

The same for senior living. A quarter of COVID-19 cases in Florida are in people 65 years old and older. A third of hospitalizations are in that age group and 85 percent of deaths among seniors according to the latest publicly-available data from the Florida Department of Health.

"Maybe we've got to move away from nursing homes and packed-in senior living," said Florida.

Growth and Globalization

The virus has re-exposed the economic vulnerabilities that have long been present in South Florida — housing affordability, wage gaps, transportation constraints, health care inequity, the digital divide. "We have a choice that we can grow better," Florida said.

"Do you want to go back to the unaffordable, highly gentrified, incredibly unequal kind of society we have now? And one that's exposed to both health risks and climate risks? Or do we want to take this opportunity because there's going to be a lot of money flowing to recovering — federal money, state money, private money. Do we want a more inclusive and resilient recovery?" asked Florida.

If there is a city that should be at a leading position in terms of advocating for globalization (that) is Miami. - Ariel Armony, author, The Global Edge: Miami in the 21st Century

Before recovery, the reopening has to get underway. The travel and hospitality industries have been hardest hit by the public health measures taken to slow the spread of the virus. Cruise ships have been docked, bars have been shut down, hotels and restaurants have been mostly closed since mid-March. Over 1.5 million unique unemployment claims have been filed in Florida despite the federal government efforts to provide forgivable loans to companies to keep workers on payrolls even if there's no business.

"We'll have to change. There is also an opportunity to think about new ways," said Ariel Armony, author of The Global Edge, Miami in the 21st Century. "Rethinking about efficiency. Rethinking about innovation."

Armony, who led the University of Miami's Institute for Advanced Study of the Americas before becoming Vice Provost for Global Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh, pointed to the integration of tourism and art in neighborhoods since the end of the Great Recession such as Wynwood. "I think that Miami can combine its globalized status with that kind of experience and really lead in new ways on how we regenerate a commercial district," he said.

Communications and travel have shrunk the globe, and economics have tied countries and regions together. South Florida has benefitted from this. The Miami customs district is one of the few that enjoys a trading surplus. Jobs in trade had been growing, and bringing growing paychecks. It’s just one result of globalization and South Florida’s role within the hemisphere. 

The Trump Administration's pre-COVID-19 tariff war with China and successful efforts to slow immigration are pushbacks against decades of globalization efforts. Armony sees this tension as key to South Florida's future as a trade and transportation hub. "If there is a city that should be at a leading position in terms of advocating for globalization, (that) is Miami," he said.

Tom Hudson is WLRN's Senior Economics Editor and Special Correspondent.