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Florida Matters: The (Maybe Not) Dismal Short-Term Future Of Tampa Bay Business

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.

As we transition back to normal, Florida Matters looked for some analysis on the unique challenges Tampa Bay businesses, non-profits and the economy will be facing as we transition from stay-at-home orders to heading back to work again.

So we got some insight with Balaji Padmanabhan,the Anderson Professor of Global Management, the Director of the Center for Analytics & Creativity and a professor in the Information Systems and Decision Sciences Departmentat the University of South Florida Muma College of Business.

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What are some of the challenges Tampa Bay businesses will be facing as we transition from stay-at-home orders to heading back to work again?

You know, I haven't seen exact numbers across all areas. But I think across the board almost all industries as very high double digit declines. This includes in obviously retail restaurants hospitality, in particularly the worst hit. But even sectors like healthcare where people are choosing to put off elective procedures and so on physicians and practices are seeing declines of 50 to 70%. In terms of treatments and patients, and that's very substantial.

On Monday, the governor allowed the reopening of certain businesses 25 percent for places like restaurants, museums, libraries, that sort of thing. Do you think that is enough to save a lot of these businesses? Or are people just kind of still very wary about going out right now, either wearing a mask or not wearing a mask?

Balaji Padmanabhan
Credit University of South Florida
The Florida Channel
Balaji Padmanabhan

A couple of things. One is that this is phase one, right? So and then the idea is that in phase one, you're starting at 25% And then you have to try to get things going so that people know you're open, you can service people safely. And then we also monitor to make sure that this is not creating huge problems. So I think it's going to be a challenge for how businesses are trying to adhere to that requirement, they will have to plan very, very carefully. But it is very, very much a test. You also have the human element, right, which, which I think is something we all worry about. Because there are you might say, We are open, but there are some people who will probably like a certain number of people who will never go out step, right. We'll wait until they're absolutely confident. There'll be those who are ready to go out like three weeks ago, right. So in a day would likely be the first ones to be out there. So we don't know how many of each type of consumers are out there. Most likely the ones will be out there first. You know, but in healthcare, it's the most needy case. But if it's the optional ones, I think we'll probably be those who are slightly more risk seeking, right, who are willing to in their own minds. They've been raised weeks ago to do this.

So it sounds like what you're saying is that the types will go skydiving and jumping off cliffs, that sort of thing. They're the first ones are gonna go out without a mask, right?

You know, and some of us have seen that already, right, your essential purchases and so on. When you've gone to these stores, you'll see a lot of people have been wearing masks, and which is very nice to see. But you also see those who don't. And there are always people who are ready and eager and, you know, a little more risk seeking.

Now some of the figures I've been seeing are pretty dire. Some reports say as many as 40% of restaurants are going to be closed permanently because of this. I don't imagine that might be even a little harsher in the Tampa Bay area. And then Florida in general, because we're such a service and tourist oriented economy. What do you think about those figures? Are they maybe too conservative?

No, I don't think they're conservative at all, because retail has in many cases been a low margin business. And, you know, even at hundred percent capacity, many of these restaurants are not making millions of dollars by staying open, right? So for them to be profitable in a 25% environment is obviously not at all easy, which is why I think a two month hiatus or a three month hiatus will destroy most of these establishments. And, you know, I think to the extent that some of them can go down and come back up, you know, and start a new with some capital, the hope is that many of them will get support from the governments to some extent to do exactly that.

Consumer confidence is a huge factor here in whether these businesses really come back to life. They have to have the customers are also not in the same business. And a lot of the fears we've been reading about are perhaps a second wave in the pandemic. I'm wondering if these businesses start opening now and we're hit with more stay at home orders. Do you think that's going to be really a fatal blow to a lot of businesses if that happens?

I'm sure that they're all thinking about it as we speak here, right? This is something that's going on to their heads every single day, which is why I think it's extremely important for them and us collectively to make sure that this succeeds. And this means in phase one businesses reopening exactly as suggested, I think there's a temptation to go about 25% you're not just hurting yourself, you're hurting the entire system. I don't think anybody wants to do this. But it says something you have to be aware of, that even if you have the capacity or have the crowds, the last thing you want to be is on the news for having people in whom you're not supposed to be. But if we do things the right way, and I think with expanded testing, that's going to happen in phase one. The state is trying to build up testing capacity and test a lot more than they've ever tested. They mean the expectation is that if there is another hotspot, it will be shut down in a very local way. So we don't have to damage everybody. I'm pretty optimistic that if we do things the right way, we will not have massive shutdowns again. I mean, you can never rule out the possibility. We all know that. But I think the onus is on all of us to do the right things in phase one as the state wants us.

Florida is such a tourism driven economy, theme parks are shot, they're not going to reopen for a long time. Most smaller restaurants, like you said, a lot of them are going to go out of business, the long term sounds pretty dismal. I've been reading predictions maybe that this will be even worse than the Great Recession? Hopefully it's not. What do you think about those warning signs?

Well, I take the opposite, very happily here. And I'm very optimistic and positive about Florida long-term. If you look at the numbers in our state per capita, the death rates and the others are far lower than what people have feared. I think if you look at states in the US, we are number 24th, worst right center in the middle. And if you look at the deaths per capita in states that highest is about 98. You know, the lowest is zero. and Florida is about 6.4. Then if you look at the county level, and if you look at the, you know, most populated counties, and then 1600 and 70 most populated counties, Hillsborough County is probably around 100 out of 164. Right. So there are 100 other counties in the US worse off than us and deaths per capita. So overall, I think in terms of numbers in terms of deaths per hundred thousand per capita, we haven't done that badly at all. And I think that that is slowly going to make its way across the nation. And they look back at Florida when the dust settles, assuming that, you know, our reopening is done carefully. And things don't spike for us if we do this carelessly, which I hope we don't. But I do think we'll come out of this very favorably. The treatments to materialize by the end of the year. And vaccines do happen in the next six months or so. Assuming those scenarios pan out. I see absolutely no reason why a year from now. What not just be the same, but much better off than we were ever before as a state?

All right, you must be a member of the optimist society!

Absolutely, you know, I'm very positive about I think the state has been going in a very, very good direction for the last 10 years or so after the previous session, we have to shake off our Florida man image, which I think has been hurting us unfairly in outside. But I think we've been doing it, you know, one bit at a time collectively, in terms of how the economy has become diversified, how new businesses are coming to the state and the kinds of innovation that's happening in Florida. I think there are lots of very, very good stories to tell.

Anything else you'd like to mention that I haven't neglected to ask you?

No, I think businesses you know, in the reopening, you know, I would say in phase one. treated as phase one, plan a lot. And here collect data and customer service. So the planning is super critical. The planning would mean, you know what it is to be 25% don't exceed that. Again, you don't want to be on the front page of the news. And I think people who violate that are essentially making the state look bad, right, the governor and the other, it's not just your other businesses, but plan a lot. And I think good planning is going to help here. Just as an extreme, I'm not saying that this is possible, if you think a restaurant has to operate at 25% capacity, but they're able to turn tables at double the speed because they set the expectation though that look, you know, dinner, the study minutes, not one hour, and you shrink the menu so that the cost of operating is outside in half. There's no reason why 25% cannot be 100%. Right if you do the math on these numbers, so that's what sometimes with planning can get you the apps like, you know, wait while and others that can let you open table that can also help you text customers instead of having them wait in a queue. So do those types of things. And if you're large organizations like providers and hospitals pay a lot of attention to contact and the surfaces that people you know touch and so on so that you have a plan in place for keeping those sanitized, not. So good planning is the best strategy collectively for us to do this but collect a lot of data during this time like as you said, you know, the skydivers and the others who show up, you know, you want to know who they are right? So so make sure that you collect a lot of data about the people who are walking into your doors now, because you may need them again very soon, and it's good to know who they are. So I think data collection at this point is going to play pays tremendous dividends as well along with good customer service thanking people to come in at these times. These are common sense things that I think if done well will help them sort of establish great customer loyalty and will be great for them in the long run.

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Steve Newborn is WUSF's assistant news director as well as a reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.