TAMPA — Despite months of pandemic-induced chaos, Florida hasn’t fallen off the economic cliff.
There are policy reasons for that, experts say: Gov. Ron DeSantis has largely erred on the side of keeping businesses open. Since April, the state has had an eviction and foreclosure moratorium on the books. And the federal government has given Floridians billions in unemployment benefits since the start of the pandemic.
But starting this week, that last, crucial factor — federal unemployment assistance — will be missing from Florida wallets.
Last week, the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity announced the fourth week of $300 payments from the federal government — which were created by an executive memorandum signed by President Donald Trump — would be the last for Floridians. The $600 weekly Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act unemployment assistance expired at the end of July.
“There has been a sense that the recovery that we have had so far really has been largely funded by that $600 benefit,” said Christopher McCarty, the director of the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research.
Since federal benefits expired, about 189,000 Floridians have signed up for unemployment assistance because of the coronavirus, according to a state dashboard. Starting this week, those who lose their jobs will be eligible for — at best — a $275 weekly check from the state.
For David Little, an unemployed 26-year-old Tampa man looking for work in the architecture industry, the end of the $300 per week benefits means months of financial uncertainty.
“My life is kind of on hold indefinitely,” Little said. “Like, I don’t know what I’m doing right now.”
Little said he considers himself lucky. He’s escaped the hard times of the coronavirus so far with little more than some extra credit card debt. But he knows other Floridians have it worse.
“I had savings, but a lot of people don’t have that,” Little said. “It’s very easy for people to start drowning.”
And if enough individuals drown, they could start to bring down the state. Unemployment assistance exists so even those who are out of work can continue to patronize businesses. The more money people spend, the general theory goes, the less need for widespread layoffs there will be.
Certain economic indicators show that Florida could be turning the corner. An unemployment rate that hovered near 14 percent as recently as May sat dropped to 7.4 percent in August. And although nearly 34,000 Floridians sought unemployment the week ending Sept. 12, that figure was down 6,000 from the previous week.
So have things gotten so good that Florida simply does not need more federal unemployment aid?
Fred Piccolo, a DeSantis spokesman, said the state would continue to welcome federal money “within reason.”
“We make a serious error when we assume that federal money is some sort of pot of gold sitting at the end of an invisible rainbow,” Piccolo said in response to an emailed list of questions. “Continuing to put taxpayers on the hook isn’t a long-term solution.”
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Some in the Florida Legislature believe lawmakers could be doing more to help those who have been affected the most by the economic fallout from the coronavirus. Republicans and Democrats questioned the state’s decision last week to end the $300 per week federal unemployment program. (Meanwhile, another federal relief bill is currently stalled in Congress amid more Republican-Democrat squabbling.)
Along with her Democratic colleagues, Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, has for months called for the Legislature to meet in Tallahassee for a special session to address the unemployment situation.
Barring that, Eskamani said she’d like to see DeSantis sign an emergency executive order increasing the maximum allowable unemployment benefit from $275 to an amount that can better pay realistic cost of living expenses.
Piccolo said DeSantis believes he cannot legally do so via executive order.
Wilton Simpson, the incoming state Senate president, said he agrees with DeSantis on this point.
But Simpson, a Trilby Republican, also said the state is showing such positive economic signs, a special session to address any budget issues may not even be necessary later this year.
“We’re doing substantially better than our peers,” Simpson said, referring to other states.
McCarty, the economics researcher, has a less optimistic outlook. At some point, after months of the government artificially juicing the market with stimulus checks and unemployment assistance and an evictions moratorium, a bill comes due, he said.
“I am in the depression camp,” McCarty said.