A conversation with economist Sean Snaith: Florida’s economy right now

Snaith is an economist with the University of Central Florida, where he teaches.
Sean Snaith is an economist with the University of Central Florida. Pictured is Snaith. | [Courtesy of the University of Central Florida]
Sean Snaith is an economist with the University of Central Florida. Pictured is Snaith. | [Courtesy of the University of Central Florida] [ University of Central Florida ]
Published Oct. 15, 2020

Florida’s economy took a catastrophic blow during the first few months of the coronavirus pandemic. Tourism, one of the state’s main economic sectors, ground to a halt and unemployment skyrocketed . But as in-person events resume and businesses rehire, the state has entered what many are calling a partial recovery.

Sean Snaith, an economist who teaches at the University of Central Florida, discusses where the state is currently at. The interview has been edited for clarity and space.

Where is Florida at in the recovery process?

I think any recovery from any recession — and this is not a normal recession by any stretch of the imagination — plays itself out unequally across geography and across different sectors of the economy. So in 2008, 2009, the construction sector was (affected) disproportionately in that recession, and it took a longer time for that sector to recover than some other sectors of the economy. Generally speaking, we’re seeing that once the lockdowns began to end, (there was) a pretty rapid resumption in most sectors of economic activity, and people being rehired as those businesses reopened after the lockdowns ended.

How is consumer spending faring?

It depends. I think generally pretty good. It’s hard to spend when all the stores are closed. Those (businesses) that were dubbed nonessential — clothing stores, etc. — obviously were hammered by the lockdowns. Consumers were unable to spend at those establishments, and so things like grocery stories, they boomed throughout the pandemic because they were open and people couldn’t go to restaurants. Their sales jumped tremendously as a result. Generally speaking, for folks that have remained employed, their ability to spend stayed intact. And the damage to wealth that sometimes affects consumer spending as it did in the 2008, 2009 recession has largely been recovered. The stock market has bounced back fairly quickly to near pre-pandemic levels, and we didn’t have the housing price collapse that we had in 2008 and 2009. For those folks that maintained their incomes, their wealth is largely intact.

What about people who haven’t been able to maintain their income?

For those folks who have lost jobs or whose businesses have been closed because of the lockdown, the situation is far different. This whole cycle has disproportionately impacted lower-income earning households, people that have to go to a location for their job or have a job that’s hands-on that can’t sit at
home and Zoom all day to get paid. Unfortunately these very folks who were doing quite well in February — wage gains were occurring at the fastest for these households — are now the ones that are still suffering from the lingering effects of the lockdowns.

Tourism was one of the hardest hit sectors in the state when the pandemic hit. Where are we at with that now?

You certainly hear stories of layoffs at hotels, theme parks, cruise lines and now potentially airports. But we’ve certainly seen improvement from where we were in March when air passenger traffic was down (about) 97 percent versus the previous year. There’s been recovery, but we’re certainly not back to February levels of business or leisure travel.

Some recent figures indicated that many women are choosing to leave the workforce because of additional responsibilities at home. What are we seeing here?

The persistent difference between in-house, in-home labor that women contribute to households versus men has been certainly exacerbated by the pandemic. In addition to whatever typical household tasks that women were doing, suddenly (if they have children) they had to become a teacher as well and oversee (learning), particularly for younger children. High-schoolers may be able to do their own thing without a lot of hand-holding, but you’ve got elementary, middle school kids that are going to need help with technology, assignments. They’re not going to have those teachers that are there for six, seven, eight hours a day. And so the burden falls back on the households. For some that can afford the luxury of pulling out of the workforce to handle that, that has certainly occurred. But just as many, if not more, just added it to their plate.

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