Across Sun Belt, hopes for economy give way to renewed fears

At the beginning of March, Joey Conicella and Alex Marin were riding high. Their new Orlando restaurant, Hungry Pants, had drawn rave reviews. With revenue rising, they planned to hire more servers. Sunday brunch service was coming soon.

That was just before the coronavirus struck suddenly, forcing them to close. But in May, as authorities eased safety and social-distancing rules, Hungry Pants reopened at smaller capacity, fueled by hope, hand sanitizer and a government loan. Now, a spike in confirmed viral cases is making Conicella and Marin anxious about the future – for their business and for the region – even as they keep their restaurant open.

“It’s been a roller-coaster ride,” Conicella said glumly.

For residents across America’s Sun Belt – business owners and workers, consumers and home buyers – the past three months have delivered about the scariest ride in memory. With confirmed viral cases surging through the region, it’s far from clear whether the stops, starts and bumps in the economy have ended. Or are they the new normal? Will the Sun Belt remain gripped by doubt and uncertainty for months or years?

What is clear is that no one feels able to relax and assume the best.

“I´m very nervous,” said Danielle Judge, owner of Rowdy’s Pet Resort in Apollo Beach. “I´ve put my life´s work into this business, and it’s really hanging on a thread.”

Judge had thought the worst was over after she had managed to reopen in May and her loan from the government’s Paycheck Protection Program had gone through. Now, her business is stalling once again as reported viral infections have accelerated. Again, she’s worried.

“I didn´t fathom that a whole country could stay shut down and affect people´s businesses and people´s livelihoods for the duration of time that it has,” Judge said.

That unease stems from a disturbing truth about the pandemic: No one, not even the top experts, can say when a vaccine or an effective treatment might be in sight.

“We don´t know when this Covid-19 is going to end,” said Aakash Patel of Tampa, who runs Elevate, a consulting firm involved in public relations and marketing for businesses.

Patel had thought things would return to “normal” by perhaps September. Now, he’s thinking January. And he’s trying to stay upbeat.

“We all fell together,” he said. “We´re all going to rise together.”

It isn’t just business owners in the region who fear for the future. It’s consumers, too.

In Scottsdale, Arizona, Jim and Bobbi Moss had been banking on what looked like a promising economic rebound, only to lose some hope and retreat into a strict limit on their discretionary spending. They now make all their meals at home, and online shopping, Bobbi Moss said, is limited to items that “sustain daily living.”

“We´re not spending online, saying, `Gee, it might be nice to have this or do that,’ “she said. “We´re not doing any of that.”

The couple, who run a tax consulting and financial services business, say many of their clients – from couples in their 30s to retirees in their 80s – feel whip-lashed by an economic stall-out after the brief rebound a few weeks ago. Clients are rethinking investments, Jim Moss said, or delaying home purchases. Some are considering reverse mortgages because they worry about their cash flow.

“Three weeks ago, people were cautiously hopeful,” Bobbi Moss said. “Now, it’s frustration.”

In Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey has ordered bars, nightclubs and water parks to close again for at least a month. Those businesses had been allowed to reopen when a previous stay-at-home order expired in mid-May.

In Texas, too, Gov. Greg Abbott in May had green-lighted one of the country’s earliest and most aggressive re-openings. But by the end of June, the state´s daily rates of newly confirmed cases and hospitalizations had quadrupled. So last week, the governor reversed course. He shuttered bars, restricting restaurant dining and barred elective surgeries in eight counties. On Thursday, he went further: He issued a mandatory face-mask order for most of the state.

Florida officials have also shut down bars for a second time. Yet the state’s approach has been defined by a patchwork of varying rules, with officials in South Florida, where viral cases have spiked, being the most stringent. In Central Florida, by contrast, some theme parks have reopened. Disney’s Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom are set to reopen July 11, Epcot and Hollywood Studios four days later.

Danielle Savin has been a personal witness to the wildly uneven ways in which states have responded to the virus.

Savin owns two bars – one in New York, one in Miami – that were forced to close for months. When the pandemic first hit and New York was the country´s epicenter, she feared most for her business there. No longer. Now, it’s the Miami location she worries most about. She’s required to close it at midnight because confirmed cases in Florida have soared.

“Being in Florida right now with COVID is like trying to play Pin the Tail on the Donkey at a 5-year-old´s birthday,” said Savin, co-owner of Bob´s Your Uncle, a bar with a neighborhood vibe that had been open a year when the virus struck.

The business model had to be swiftly changed, with more focus on food, more kitchen staff and a staggering of shifts to comply with restrictions.

Sales have declined, though. Savin and her co-owner have been working with their landlord to help with rent payments. Still, she started a GoFundMe page that has raised about $3,000 to help struggling employees.

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