May 25, 2020

Editor's Page

Out of the bubble

Mark R. Howard | 4/27/2020

A shift is approaching, if not already here.

As I’m writing this, the strategy of trying to moderate the spread of the coronavirus continues as we await the development of a vaccine or effective therapy. By mid-March, it was clear that we hadn’t acted soon enough or aggressively enough to actually prevent the virus from spreading and that the best we could do was to smooth out the flow of new infections over time. Instead of prevention, the goal became to avoid swamping our hospitals with coronavirus patients. And to avoid a massive number of deaths in a short period — the kind of cluster with as many political implications as medical.

Without good data about the virus or widespread testing, the strategy of shutdowns, restrictions and self-imposed social distance was the only way to manage a risk that clearly was dire. Meanwhile, it seems clear that in the coming months and years, most of us, with or without a vaccine, will be exposed to the virus.

The shutdown-and-moderate strategy, of course, has come at an enormous cost. Protecting the integrity of our medical system — about 17% of the economy — has meant kneecapping the other 83%, creating the possibility that unemployment could go north of 20% into Great Depression-era levels. Meanwhile, we’ve sequestered ourselves and families in a limbo of work-at-home social isolation. For weeks, we’ve all been the child in the bubble.

That equilibrium won’t hold. Americans, at some point, simply won’t tolerate isolation, boredom — and unemployment. People will disobey orders to stay home, businesses will push to reopen and our political system will have to respond with a new approach to managing the virus, perhaps focusing on protecting the people most at risk and encouraging everyone else to get on with business and self-manage their own risk. Normal life, albeit with more handwashing, fewer hugs and handshakes — and visits with grandma via FaceTime or Zoom until a vaccine arrives.

Our relationship with the virus going forward? It sounds brutish to say, but Americans have already shown we are comfortable with a large number of casualties each year from seasonal illness. Overshadowed by the coronavirus, influenza, a familiar, well-understood virus, through March had produced more than 38 million illnesses, more than 710,000 hospitalizations and between 23,000 and 50,000 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

How comfortable have we grown with the flu? Two years ago, 2017-18, the flu was so bad that some hospitals had to set up triage centers in their parking lots. That season, 61,000 Americans died. The country shrugged. We’re blasé enough about the flu, in fact, that about 40% of Americans, including some of the most vulnerable, fail to take the one simple step — a flu shot — that can protect us.

As our public health response to the coronavirus evolves, the business community needs to turn its attention to — along with getting back to business — dealing with the economic wreckage left by this spring’s events.

In 2008, as the Great Recession devastated the real estate industry, there were around 30,000 unemployed people in Tampa who had held jobs in that industry, from loan officers to mortgage processors to construction workers. Ron Weaver, a real estate attorney and shareholder at Stearns Weaver Miller, and several other volunteers organized a support group called Real Estate Lives to help some of those people get back on their feet — and into new jobs. “We had done well in real estate, and the question was what we were going to do for people who were hurting,” says Weaver, a first-rate lawyer and kind, generous man who has an otherworldly memory for names and places.

The group has met every Tuesday since then, helping more than 4,200 people, including training 3,200 in a six-week “boot camp” program on job hunting. Participants “do everything you do in boot camp,” Weaver says — exercise, hold home lunches and meet with volunteer counselors on Tuesdays. Along with 13 assigned tasks related to job hunting, participants in the program get turkeys at Thanksgiving and Christmas, all manner of job counseling — and are required to generate and document 20 job leads a day.

Over time, the volunteer group began helping displaced workers from outside the real estate industry, who now comprise the majority of participants and who also help each other. Occasionally, help comes in the form of a new pair of glasses or a car repair so someone can make it to a job interview. In recent days, a former loan officer has advised some recently laid off employees how best to request a “repayment holiday” from their mortgage lenders.

Real Estate Lives is the kind of locally based effort that Florida will need more of as we move forward in the months ahead. Just 60 days ago, our state’s economy was booming. We can get back there again, if we help each other.

— Mark Howard, Executive Editor
[mhoward@floridatrend.com]

 

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