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The economy and epidemiology of the evolving COVID-19 virus in South Florida

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Omicron is just the latest in the string of reminders that the virus and reactions to it are driving the economy. As infections have changed, so has the economic recovery.

Between the near-record high number of passengers through Miami International Airport, a big jump of fliers traveling through Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport over Thanksgiving, and the choked roads around many of the Miami Art Week events throughout the region — it may not look like the COVID-19 pandemic is close to stretching into a second calendar year.

"We're putting the worst behind us," said Howard Frank, director of Florida Metropolitan Center.

One piece of evidence he cites is the number of people filing for unemployment insurance for the first time. For the week before Thanksgiving, fewer than 6,000 people put in their applications for unemployment checks. That is the lowest number since the week before the pandemic took hold of the economy in early March 2020 and restrictions were put in place in hopes of closing the spread of the virus.

It was the fear of the unknown then. While so much has changed — vaccines, treatments and the scientific understanding of the virus — the threat has not passed. Just consider the questions about the new omicron variant.

Dr. Zinzi Bailey is a social epidemiologist at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

"From the data, the limited data that we're seeing there does seem to be higher levels of transmissibility," said Dr. Zinzi Bailey, a social epidemiologist with the University of Miami. "For example, if there is a person who is infected with delta or beta or alpha — if they were in a crowded place, they would be less likely to transmit SARS-CoV-2 in that situation. With omicron, it's seeming like, based on the limited information, that is much more transmissible."

That is one of the unanswered public health questions about the new mutation and one of the risks to the pandemic economic recovery.

"There's just a chunk of people who are still on the sidelines or have dropped out of the out of the workforce altogether," Frank said.

The dynamics have helped boost wages. Nationally, the average hourly wage in the hospitality industry had jumped more than 12% from a year earlier. This is particularly important in South Florida with the number of hospitality jobs in the economy and the higher cost of living in the region.

"Are we just lacking people we can even add to the labor force right now? Are we still going through this great sorting out, based on wages, based on availability of daycare — people considering what they want to do with the rest of their lives?" Frank said.

There are several theories as to why people have not flocked back to the workforce, and what it will take to bring workers back.

"We know this labor force participation problem isn't going away overnight," said Frank. The number of people in South Florida considered part of the workforce remains below where it was before the pandemic started in 2020.

One theory is the worry about the virus, especially in recent months as the delta variant spread quickly in Florida. And now the unknown risks of omicron — which has been found in several states.

The virus and how people react to it, moves a lot faster than the economic data. So it would be a couple of months before any omicron influence may be seen in the regional economic statistics.

And the new version of the virus is threatening the region as rules over what local governments and companies can do have changed. Florida has a new state law that prohibits local governments from putting in mask mandates and allows companies to institute a vaccine policy for employees only if they’re allow a series of opt-out measures.

"Locally, I would be trying to look for signs of preparedness for us to be able to nimbly move towards different levels of alertness regarding new variants — being able to change procedures in public spaces, public institutions and potentially in private institutions," Bailey said.

Copyright 2021 WLRN 91.3 FM

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.