How will Osceola County return to work? Task forces consider options, safety

  • State numbers
    State numbers

As new cases of COVID-19 flatten, Central Florida leaders are exploring how to re-open the local economy in phases.

On April 22, Kissimmee Chamber President John Newstreet joined nearly 50 other members of a new regional task force charged with developing a path toward economic recovery.

During its first meeting, the task force agreed to take a health and data-driven approach to decision making. The main speakers included medical experts from AdventHealth and the Florida Health Department.

Doctors agreed infection rates are declining but emphasized the need for widespread testing and an eventual COVID-19 vaccine.

Meanwhile, the pandemic’s economic impact deepens in Osceola County, where leisure and hospitality accounted for 21.3 percent of the total workforce in 2018.

Yet, those jobs only average an annual wage of $23,958, according to a report by the Florida Office of Economic and Demographic Research.

Stay-at-home orders and theme park closures have transformed Kissimmee’s booming West U.S. Highway 192 tourism corridor into a ghost town. Levels of human interaction will likely determine which Central Florida businesses can re-open first, according to task force discussions.

A company with low human interaction, for example, can guarantee social distancing between employees and minimal contact with the public.

These businesses will be able to return to the office first, followed by medium and high human interaction businesses.

But the exact timeline is still unclear. Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said the group would begin meeting daily this week to hammer out details.

Guidance from the state’s Task Force to Re-Open Florida is likely to influence local policy decisions. That group is scheduled to unveil recommendations sometime this week.

In the meantime, residents are encouraged to share thoughts about re-opening the economy through a public comment online portal.

According to a news release, this public feedback will play a role in the task force’s final report to the governor.

Florida’s current stay-at-home order is set to expire Thursday. Gov. Ron DeSantis has yet to indicate whether the order will be extended.

At April 27, a total 14,884 unemployment claims were filed in Osceola County, according to state data.

Osceola is ranked second in the state for the highest percentage of unemployment claims, with 8.1 percent of the county's workforce out of a job..

Numbers are only expected to grow as new data becomes available.

Since March 15, nearly 1.9 million unemployment claims have been filed statewide.

Less than half of all verified claimants have received any state unemployment benefits as of Tuesday morning, according to a new Department of Economic Opportunity dashboard.

Meanwhile, a group called Osceola Return to Work held its first meeting Thursday with about 20 members.

More think tank than task force, this group aims to provide prospective and recommendations to the county manager and other officials.

Newstreet said safety is important but businesses are hurting and want to get back to work.

“I think the health data is much more promising than the economic data right now,” he said.

Unlike Orange County’s regional group, Newstreet said Osceola Return to Work is focused on small businesses.

Newstreet thinks smaller businesses are more than capable of following CDC social distancing guidelines, similar to grocery stores.

“We can’t keep everything shut down forever,” he said. “We need to be smart about how we re-open.”

Before funding dried up April 16, Florida businesses were approved for $17.8 billion in Paycheck Protection Program loans.

On April 24, the U.S. Congress approved an additional $380 billion in loans and funding for small businesses.

The money will be distributed through several programs including the:

·      Paycheck Protection Program (PPP)

·     Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL)

·     Emergency Advance Program

The Small Business Administration resumed taking loan applications on Monday.

According to the agency’s website, new funding is expected to go quickly.