COVID-19 and the county’s economy: Hiccup or major hit?

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As many St. Johns County residents are starting to return to work as Phase II begins, a sense of normalcy appears on the horizon. Closed signs, empty streets and shelves seem like they could soon be nothing more than a memory – or at least that’s the hope.

While nobody could have predicted COVID-19, perhaps it is possible to predict its future economic impact on the county. According to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, the number of people unemployed in St. Johns County as of April 1 was 14,012. With those furloughed returning to work, many are looking toward those left behind for predictions on whether we’ll see an economic “hiccup” or full-blown recession.

Richard Goldman, President & CEO of St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau, said he has high hopes for the county’s recovery, although the commission needs to make an effort to push it along.

“I believe we will have a full recovery, I do,” Goldman said. “The speed in which we return to normal is something that nobody can really predict for sure.”

Goldman would like to see some reserve funds as a loan against the Tourist Development Tax in order to market St. John’s County to possible tourists.

“That's really important to our recovery,” he said. “If we have enough funds to market the destination in the next few months and then the next fiscal year, the recovery will be seen simply as a blip and we'll be back to normal this time next year. If for some reason that can't happen and our competitors are able to outspend us, then I think it will take a little more time for us to recover.”

St. Johns County tourism industry is without a doubt, the driving force to its economy. Last year, visitors spent almost $712 million, a record year for the county. In April, however, there has been a 15.7% job loss reported, compared to a 17.9% state average, according to the state.

Isabelle Renault, President and CEO of the St. Johns Chamber of Commerce, has been following impact of COVID-19 on the economy closely since the shutdown. Like many other tourist-centric counties, unemployment and job loss numbers are on the higher side, although St. John’s county is just under the state average. Renault suggested it was because of the unique nature of the county’s tourism that the numbers are less devastating than its economic cousin counties.

“If you look at Orlando and South Florida, they lost more [jobs],” Renault said. “The explanation for that is a lot of those areas are dependent on international and state tourism traffic. We are very much a driving destination due to our location. We are very fortunate that [we are] because people are reluctant to fly and it's easy for people to reach us.” 

Goldman said he is also impressed with how well local businesses and restaurants have weathered the storm of being shut down. He attributes this is mainly businesses’ prior experience to weathering actual storms.

“We have not seen a large number of closed doors, or people saying, 'we're not coming back,'” Goldman said. “Frankly, I can’t think of one that I’m aware of. Our business owners have done a very good job of preparing for a rainy day. We've been through a few hurricanes and that was a wakeup call.”

So far, Goldman said the Bureau predicts a 20-25% loss of tourism revenue for the year. In the short term, that is a fairly large hit to the county’s economy. In the long term, many in the industry are very confident, however.

“With people moving to Florida, $1.19 Million of income moves to our state each hour of each day,” said Florida Chamber CEO Mark Wilson. “Florida is the 17th largest economy in the world. In 2030, Florida will be the 10th largest economy in the world after Russia, Spain, Mexico and South Korea.”

Pending any major disaster, like a hurricane, that is.

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